Can Immunotherapy Actually Cure Cancer?

Here’s how immunotherapy is impacting cancer treatment outcomes.

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Finding a cure for cancer has long been an elusive pursuit, but with groundbreaking immunotherapy treatment, more and more cancer patients are hearing good news from their doctors.

There are certain types of cancer that doctors can cure with immunotherapy, according to oncologist Melissa Wilson, MD, PhD. For other kinds of cancer, doctors look to manage recurrence through ongoing and different types of treatment. Immunotherapy isn’t currently perceived as a cancer cure, but it is prolonging life and changing outcomes for many patients. (Here are the types of cancer that immunotherapy can help treat.)

Immunotherapy—which is an umbrella term for a variety of cancer treatments that assist the immune system in shrinking or killing off cancer cells—works differently than other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. What makes immunotherapy so powerful is its high rate of success in attacking cancer cells and maintaining that over a long period of time, reducing the likelihood of the cancer returning or spreading.

Immunotherapy works by helping the immune system recognize cancer cells, which traditionally masquerade as regular, healthy cells. The ability of cancer cells to trick and evade the immune system’s typical response to foreign molecules in the body is what has made cancer so difficult to treat.

Because the different forms of immunotherapy help the body recognize the cells as cancerous, the immune system can then target, shrink, and even kill off tumor growth, thus treating cancer.

Although immunotherapy treatment cannot yet “cure” cancer, researchers are performing clinical trials to find how immunotherapy can treat different types of cancer successfully. In the future, immunotherapy may be used in earlier stages of cancer treatment to prevent cancers from coming back instead of in the later stages of treatment in which they’re currently used.