With Medical Oncologist Scott Lunin, MD
Welcome to “Ask an Expert,” a Q&A series with Sarasota Memorial’s team of doctors, nurses and other health experts, where you can get thorough answers to your health and wellness queries from a local source you can trust. Have a question that you’d like to “Ask an Expert”? Email it to AskAnExpert@smh.com.
In the last few decades, immunotherapy has become an integral part of cancer treatment, for some types of cancer. The practice of using the immune system to fight cancer, or immunotherapy, continues to evolve. To learn more about it, we asked an expert: Medical Oncologist Scott Lunin, MD. Here, Dr. Lunin answers some of the most frequently asked questions about immune-based therapies used for cancer treatment.
Q: What is immunotherapy? How does it work?
Immunotherapy consists of harnessing either the patient’s own immune system (i.e., checkpoint inhibitors) [to treat cancer] or adoptively transferring antibodies from an outside source, in an attempt to generate an anti-cancer effect.
Q: What types of cancer can be treated with immunotherapies?
Epithelial (solid tumors such as lung, bladder, and head and neck), as well as hematologic malignancies (lymphoma and leukemia), have demonstrated responses to different immune-based therapies. Skin cancer such as melanoma can also be treated with immune-based therapies.
Q: Is chemotherapy a type of immunotherapy?
Chemotherapy is generally not considered a form of immunotherapy.
Q: Can immunotherapy be used to prevent cancer, in addition to using it to treat cancer?
Current literature does not support immune-based therapies for the primary prevention of malignancies. However, for patients responding to immunotherapy, we generally continue the treatment as long as tolerance is acceptable and the patient maintains a favorable response to it.
Q: What are some benefits and side effects of immunotherapy?
Most patients tolerate immunotherapy quite well without any side effects. The benefits of immunotherapy include improved control of cancer within a more favorable envelope of side effects to the patient. Side effects are generally related to auto-immune disturbances, which can involve the skin (rash), gastrointestinal tract (diarrhea), lungs (cough and shortness of breath) and kidneys (renal failure). Most of these will resolve by holding the immunotherapy and treating the patient with steroids.
Patients may also experience infusion-related side effects, such as chills or rigors. Traditional side effects of chemotherapy such as hair loss (alopecia), nausea, vomiting and severe fatigue are generally not observed with immunotherapy.
Q: Can you recommend other resources for better understanding immunotherapy?
The American Cancer Society, National Comprehensive Cancer Network and www.uptodate.com are all reliable resources for patients and family members to educate themselves on current cancer practices and treatments.
Scott Lunin, MD, is a board-certified medical oncologist with the Sarasota Memorial Cancer Institute.