What’s the connection?

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.


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.