What Is the Connection between Cancer and the Immune System?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2018
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Cancer and the immune system are believed to be interconnected in two ways. Firstly, many cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy can damage the immune system, leaving the body weakened and vulnerable to secondary infections. Secondly, the white cells of the immune system normally identify cancerous and pre-cancerous cells in the body, destroying them before they're allowed to grow out of control. The link between cancer and the immune system's role in defending the body against cancerous cells has led to an increased emphasis on the importance of immune system support for cancer patients, as well as for those hoping to prevent cancer. Many newer cancer treatments hope to capitalize on the link between cancer and the immune system.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy have traditionally been used to treat cancer. While these treatments can kill cancerous cells, they may also damage healthy cells. Unpleasant symptoms and secondary illnesses can occur as a result.


Patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy are usually encouraged to practice a lifestyle that boosts and supports proper immune function. In the healthy person, the immune system locates and eradicates any cancerous cells before they have a chance to replicate and form tumors. Doctors believe that some cancerous cells, however, may be able to temporarily evade this natural immune response by disguising themselves as healthy cells. Once a cancerous tumor forms, the healthy immune system is usually powerless to destroy it. Strengthening and supporting the immune system is, however, believed to help underscore the effectiveness of cancer treatment and increase the chances of recovery.

Immunity-boosting habits for patients include eating a balanced, nutritious diet rich in antioxidants. It's generally considered best to seek nutrition from foods, rather than vitamins or supplements. Exercising at least three times a week is also believed to boost immunity significantly. Stress-relief practices such as yoga or meditation can help with the treatment of cancer and the immune system, while therapeutic support groups are said to have a dramatic effect on patients' immune function.

Newer cancer treatments, like cancer vaccines, gene therapy, and biological response modifier (BRM) therapy, seek to treat cancer by strengthening and supporting the body's immune response against cancerous cells. These treatments seek to help make the body more resistant to cancer. Some may be able to provide an immunity to certain types of cancer, while others may help slow the growth of cancerous cells, or make immune cells more able to destroy them.



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