Only a few months after she retired in October 2018, Lynn Walker knew something was wrong with her health. Without any prior history of skin cancers, she learned that she had an advanced form of melanoma that has spread all over her body.
“I was so sick and I felt awful before treatment,” says Walker. “I had no energy and lost so much weight.” Walker worried about the possibility of going through chemotherapy and not surviving the effects of cancer treatment, let alone melanoma. But she soon learned of another approach that held promise for her type of cancer: immunotherapy, a cancer treatment that triggers a person’s own immune system to kill the cancer cells within their body. “I had no idea there was another option until we came to Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI),” Walker says.
Since the late 1800s, doctors have known that the immune system is able to kill some cancer cells in diseases like melanoma. But the immune system can’t completely fight it off. Once melanoma has spread, it becomes very hard to treat. Major advances in the last 10 years using immunotherapy have changed that, leading to dramatic improvements in survival for some melanoma patients.
“When we give chemotherapy or targeted therapy, we often have to use high doses of a drug — the higher the concentration, the higher likelihood that the drug is going to kill the cancer cells. They are the weapon for killing tumors. But more often than not, the concentration that a patient can tolerate is not enough to kill all of the cancer cells. In immunotherapy, however, drugs are not the weapon,” explains Dr. Siwen Hu-Lieskovan, MD, PhD, an HCI oncologist who cares for melanoma patients and an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. “In immunotherapy, we give the patient a stimulator that will wake up or unleash their immune cells to kill the tumor cells. The weapon is the patient’s own immune system.”
“Immunotherapy is a breakthrough for not only melanoma but also other cancers because it trains the immune cells to fight the cancer,” says Hu-Lieskovan. Cancer cells can send misinformation to the body that tells immune cells not to attack them. Immunotherapy treatments work by blocking these communications so that the immune system can recognize the tumor as harmful and work against it. Hu-Lieskovan oversees clinical trials that build upon advances using immunotherapies, or other strategies to activate the immune system to fight cancer.
Walker received two immunotherapy drugs that helped to activate her immune system to fight her cancer. “We had a CT scan in August 2019 and the tumors had shrunk to half the size,” Walker explains. “The kidney and rib tumors were gone completely. The ones that covered 60 percent of my liver were half the size.” Now every two weeks, Walker visits HCI for the immunotherapy treatment to help her immune system to maintain and potentially further improve this success. Walker will have her next CT scan in December 2019.
“We’re very fortunate that we have Huntsman Cancer Institute in our backyard,” she says. “You don’t think about it until you’re confronted with cancer. We are in good hands with great doctors.”
Learn more about immunotherapy for cancer treatment.