Cancer Treatment

Immunotherapy: Helping the Body Heal Itself

How a new targeted treatment is helping a Cancer Fighter get back to a normal, busy life

By Diana Price

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Steve Hook is not afraid of hard work. The 41-year-old concrete mason from Ashville, New York was consistently putting in 100 hours a week to run his company, alongside his responsibilities to his family—wife, Amy, and stepsons Quincy and Nathan—when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the fall of 2011. Little did he know, immunotherapy would help him get back to his full life.

“The diagnosis was tough,” Hook says. “I’m a person who likes to take control, and I was in a position where I had to rely on medicine.” Still, he was ready to face the challenge with his signature work ethic, determined to beat the disease. “I thought, I can do this; it’s just going to be another fight,” Hook says.

But chemotherapy was harder than he could have imagined. He experienced loss of mental focus, and the physical side effects depleted his energy and kept him from work.  “I really lost my physical self,” he says. “I went from being a guy who could pick up anything I wanted—within reason—to having to ask for help; I was only able to work six hours a day instead of my usual 12 to 18 hours. It knocked me out.”

Having experienced the side effects of chemotherapy, when Hook later sought care at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and learned that he might be a candidate for immunotherapy—a rapidly advancing new type of cancer treatment that activates a patient’s immune system to combat cancer—he was interested to learn more.

Pamela Crilley, DO, Chair of Medical Oncology at CTCA® in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Hook’s oncologist, told him that immunotherapy has shown great promise in Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Some cancers now have a proven track record with immunotherapy, including some hematologic malignancies, or liquid tumors, such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma” Dr. Crilley says.

Hook was intrigued, and he set about learning more. “I did a lot of research and discussed it with my doctors; given the studies that show how effective it has been treating my type of cancer, I was ready to try it,” he says.

“I’m excited about immunotherapy,” Dr. Crilley says, “because it’s really a marriage between oncology and immunology.” In recent years she says, “as investigators have developed a deeper understanding of the basic science behind immune reactions and triggers on the growth of an underlying cancer, we’ve seen rapid advances in developing therapies that reflect this understanding.”

Within the broad category of cancer therapies that are referred to as immunotherapies—all of which use the body’s immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells—there are three different types of treatment: checkpoint inhibitors, cytokines, and vaccines.

In Hook’s case, Dr. Crilley says, the immunotherapy (a drug called Nivolumab) is a checkpoint inhibitor, an intravenous medicine that unleashes the power of the immune system to evade the tumor that is trying to attack him by overcoming the cancer cell’s defense mechanisms.

For Hook, the treatment has been highly effective. After seeing his cancer progress following his initial chemotherapy treatment and also following an autologous stem cell transplant that followed, he has seen dramatic improvement since he began the immunotherapy treatment in February 2016. He receives infusions of the medication every two weeks, and his tumor is responding to therapy.

Perhaps best for Hook, he has had no side effects to date from the treatment, and he feels as though he has his life back.

“My energy and activity levels are back to normal, as is my mental ability,” Hook says. “I’m back to working out, back to working hard, and I still have energy at the end of the day to be active with my family, whether it’s going for a walk with my wife, kicking a soccer ball around with my stepsons or playing fetch with the dog.”

Dr. Crilley has been thrilled to see Hook do so well during his treatment. “He has tolerated the treatment extremely well; so far, we haven’t seen any side effects.” However, the team at CTCA continues to follow him closely, as there are significant side effects from this type of treatment, which can include issues related to thyroid function and/or autoimmune responses. “We monitor him vigilantly,” Dr. Crilley says.

The success of Hook’s treatment and the rapid advances in research related to immunotherapy have Dr. Crilley feeling very optimistic that the treatment will continue to offer benefit to more patients in coming years. “This therapy is new and is under intense investigation,” Dr. Crilley says, “and I believe the future for immunotherapy is very bright.”

No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.