Cancer and the Immune System, Plus Prevention Tips

Over the past 10 years, a new class of drugs has revolutionized cancer care. These medications, known as checkpoint inhibitors, unleash an individual’s own immune system on malignant cells, offering new hope to people with cancer.

Before these treatments hit the mainstream, it’s helpful to learn more about the immune/cancer connection.

Immunosurveillance

Our immune systems play a critical role in identifying and destroying aberrant cells before they become cancerous. This protective phenomenon, known as immunosurveillance, is led by dendritic cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and cytotoxic T-cells.

Cancer develops in part because these cells fail to control abnormal growth. Individuals with immune deficiencies are known to be at higher risk of cancer, especially those caused by viruses. This predisposition highlights the critical anticancer role of our immune system.

Immune deficiency cannot explain every diagnosis. Cancer is a master manipulator, dodging immune detection through a complex interplay of microscopic cellular receptors and chemical messengers. Malignant cells shield themselves in what is known as the tumor microenvironment, a toxic entourage of hijacked cells that promotes cancer growth, causes inflammation, and confuses the immune system.

If detected, cancer cells can avoid destruction by stealthily changing their external appearance. While it may be tempting to blame immune dysfunction for a cancer diagnosis, the truth is that we are up against a formidable opponent.

Immune attacks require immune treatments

The newest treatments harness the power of the immune system, unmasking cancer and heightening the immune response. These include

  • monoclonal antibodies (e.g., Herceptin), which “tag” cancer cells, slowing down their growth while making them visible to our immune system
  • checkpoint inhibitors (e.g., Nivolumab), which dismantle the immune blockades set up by cancer cells
  • adoptive cell therapy (CAR and TIL T-cell therapy), which arms our own immune cells with cancer-specific receptors to find and destroy malignant cells (experimental)

Given the intimate connection between immune function and cancer, these therapies are the next logical step in care.

High-tech treatments, low-tech support

Supportive therapies grounded in traditional medicines draw the focus back from the cellular level to that of the whole person and represent essential supports to quality of life during treatment. Always check with your doctor before starting a new supplement or therapy. Some examples of supportive therapies include:

  • acupuncture (an ancient therapy well recognized for its ability to control nausea and vomiting during treatment, and may also strengthen the immune system)
  • massage therapy (which may protect against nerve damage during chemotherapy and improve quality of life)
  • mind-body practices such as guided imagery (which uses descriptions of positive images to create a state of calm to help reduce pain, thereby improving quality of life)
  • movement and exercise (which helps reduce cancer risk and can also support muscles that can be weakened by some cancer treatments)
  • supportive supplements (such as vitamin D and probiotics)

While high-tech immunotherapy is the future of conventional oncology, traditional medicines and nutritional supplements can provide essential low-tech support.

Cancer Prevention Tips

No one likes to think about cancer. But being proactive about cancer prevention and early detection could be lifesaving, no matter your age. Here’s how to know the symptoms to watch for and precautionary actions to take.

Youth

You know your child best, so you may be the first to notice something unusual that might point to cancer.

Common cancers in kids

Type of cancer Common symptoms
leukemia unexplained tiredness; easy bruising
brain persistent headaches; new seizures; dramatic personality change
lymphoma one or more swollen lymph nodes
bone leg pain or other bone pain that persists

Most childhood cancers aren’t due to lifestyle. But the habits you instill in kids may help prevent cancer when they’re adults.

Proactive actions

Keep regular checkups

Routine blood tests can show potential signs of some cancers, including leukemia.

Encourage physical activity

Exercise lowers cancer risk.

Teach sun safety

Use sunscreen and discourage indoor tanning.

Adulthood 

Some cancer symptoms are vague, so it’s important to get checked if you feel that something is wrong.

Common cancers in adults

Type of cancer Common symptoms
breast unexplained lump or swelling
prostate trouble urinating or increased urination frequency
colorectal persistent change in bowel habits; blood in stool
lung unexplained, prolonged cough

Proactive actions

Get checkups

Several screenings—including mammograms, prostate tests, and colonoscopies—are generally started between ages 40 and 50, depending on personal risk.

Maintain a healthy weight 

Excess body fat increases risk of many cancers.

Limit alcohol and avoid smoking

Both are known causes of cancer.

Seniors

Many cancers common in middle-aged adults are even more common in older adults.

Other common cancers in older adults

Type of cancer Common symptoms
leukemia significantly lower energy level over a period of a few months; frequent infections; swollen lymph nodes
skin change in appearance of a mole
bladder blood in urine; frequent and/or painful urination

Unexplained weight loss may also signal cancer, so consult a health care practitioner.

Proactive actions

Continue checkups

Decide with your doctor which cancer screenings are still right for you.

Check your skin regularly

A dermatologist can evaluate any concerns.

Monitor your weight 

Weigh yourself at least every month.

Anticancer eating 

There are so many wonderfully healthy foods to include in your diet, such as:

  • nonstarchy vegetables, especially green leafy and cruciferous ones such as kale and broccoli
  • whole fruit, particularly berries
  • mushrooms, such as reishi and maitake
  • oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, and herring
  • plant proteins, including beans, lentils, tofu, and edamame
  • whole grains, especially oats and barley
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • herbs and spices, such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and onions

Supplemental support

It’s important to ask your health care practitioner before taking a new supplement. One notable supplement that may help to reduce cancer risk is vitamin D. Other supplements being studied for potential anticancer or immune-supportive effects include berberine, curcumin, EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), lycopene, mushroom extracts, and omega-3s.

^This article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease. Consult your healthcare provider before trying a supplement, especially if you have a medical condition, including being pregnant or nursing, take prescription or over-the-counter medications, or are planning on having surgery.

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Article copyright 2022 by Alive Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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