Immunotherapy is a relatively new form of treatment in which a patient’s immune system is activated to kill and remove cancer cells. Acid explains what you can compare it to: “Imagine you have a splinter in your finger. The splinter is foreign to the body and then the immune system attacks it. The skin around the splinter usually turns a little red and sometimes there is some pus. This way the spit is expelled from your body. “.
Cancer is also alien to your body, it has pretty crazy DNA. “It seems our immune system isn’t always able to get rid of it,” Zur explains. “Immunotherapy ensures that your immune system becomes active again against cancer, so it can kill and cleanse cancer cells.”
Immunotherapy is already used in other types of cancer, but it has not been used successfully in head and neck cancer before. According to Zur, the progress made in this research is enormous. “People started this treatment with large tumors and within four to five weeks that tumor was gone.”
Of all the patients who participated in the study, more than 90% of the cancer had cleared or completely cured in 35% of the patients. “What we also saw in patients is that the treatment ensures disease-free survival. Whereas patients who do not receive immunotherapy have a very high risk of recurrence,” says Zur.
Head and neck cancer is most often found in the mouth, throat, or nose, but it can also appear as skin cancer. “This type of cancer is often performed with an extensive procedure. For example, removing part of the tongue, or amputating the ear or nose,” Zur explains.
Zaur Jarrah is the same and points out that she finds it difficult to perform such operations. “Such an operation can disfigure patients if part of the face changes very seriously. Then you will look really different.”
The patients who participated in the study also had to undergo surgery. “The tumors were usually completely gone and yet they had to go under the knife. Then you think: Why am I still doing this operation?” says Zur. This is because immunotherapy is a medical scientific study, it is an experimental treatment that is being tested. Persons participating in such a study should not be deprived of standard treatment. “We have operated on people whose cancer has never been found,” Zur says.
Currently, there is no evidence that immunotherapy can do this alone. However, some patients who participated in the study chose not to have the procedure. “The patient has that right,” Zur says. “These patients felt that the cancer was disappearing and thanked the doctor for his advice on having the surgery and wanted to see it.”
All patients who refuse surgery are currently free of cancer. “Obviously, immunotherapy for a small portion of patients could be able to do this on their own without the need for surgery,” Zur says happily. “Future research should show that.”
It remains to be seen if and when immunotherapy will become the standard treatment. “The next investigation that needs to be done is, to me, we are saying we are keeping the surgery on hold for some time from people who are responding well to treatment. If what we think turns out to be true, another new study will need to be done to demonstrate a structured approach,” Zur says. This applies to more patients.”