There's no doubt that both cancer and autoimmune disorders are debilitating diseases for anyone to have to go through. People with either disease can live full lives, but both cancer and some autoimmune disorders can prove to be deadly if not treated in time or correctly. Taking a closer look at each type of disease, cancer is an overgrowth of cells that eventually destroys healthy body tissue, whereas autoimmune disorders are when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells— and this can occur in just about any part of the body.
The most common types of cancer that can occur in both men and women are leukemia (blood cancer) skin, lung, colorectal, bladder, kidney, and pancreatic cancers— with breast cancer being the most common cancer in women and prostate cancer being the second most common cancer in men. Some of the most common types of autoimmune disorders include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and Graves’ disease.
As devastating as these diseases are, the good news is that there are more breakthroughs in treatments backed by constant research. Here’s a look at some of the research on the treatments for cancer and autoimmune disorders.
How Cancer Begins
Cells are the basic components that make up the human body. Cells grow and divide to make new cells as the body needs them. Often, cells die when they are old or damaged. Then new cells take their place. Cancer develops when genetic changes disrupt this process. Cells begin to grow out of control. These cells can form masses called tumors. The lump may be cancerous or benign. A malignant tumor is malignant, which means it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means that the tumor can grow but not spread. Some types of cancer do not form tumors. These include leukemias, many types of lymphomas, and myeloma.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, causing nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or nearly one in six deaths (WHO).
The most common cancers are breast, lung, colon and rectal, and prostate cancer. About a third of cancer deaths are due to smoking, obesity, alcohol consumption, low fruit and vegetable intake and lack of exercise.
Carcinogenic viruses, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis, cause about 30% of cancer in low- and middle-income countries. Most cancers can be cured if detected early and treated properly.
Accurate diagnosis of cancer is important for appropriate and effective treatment, as each type of cancer requires specific treatment methods. Treatment usually includes surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy (chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy). Choosing the right treatment plan takes into account both the cancer and the person being treated. Completion of treatment within a specified period of time is necessary to achieve the intended treatment results. Determining treatment goals is an important first step.
The main goal is usually to cure cancer or prolong life. Improving the patient's quality of life is also an important goal. This can be achieved through support for the physical, social and psychological well-being of the patient and palliative care in the terminal stages of cancer.
The good news is that fewer people in the United States are dying from cancer than in the past, and it’s all thanks to advances in cancer treatments. Half a century ago, there were only about three million cancer survivors, whereas today there are over 18 million. The fact that more people know what to look for and go in for regular screenings also helps.
Currently, one of the biggest breakthroughs in cancer research is that of immunotherapies. This is the process of harnessing one’s own immune system to help fight cancer. The immune system is designed to help fight off illnesses and infections, so the same thought is applied to fighting cancer cells. A healthy immune system will not attack its own body— which unfortunately includes cancer cells if they’re present— but cancer treatments called immune checkpoint inhibitors to allow the immune system to attack the cancer cells.
There is more research being done on developing cancer drugs that can target specific DNA mutations in cancer cells. This has the potential to be a huge breakthrough in cancer treatment because many cancers develop as a result of a genetic mutation. If this can be done, then cancer could be prevented before the cells start to divide uncontrollably. Again, more research is needed before this can become a reality.
The good news is that many cancers can be prevented because we know the cause. For example, you’re less likely to develop skin cancer if you wear an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen daily (no matter your skin tone) and if you stay away from tanning beds. You can also lower your chances of developing lung cancer if you abstain from smoking and environmental pollutants, such as asbestos.
Overall, early detection is key. Almost every type of cancer is survivable if detected and treated early. Unfortunately, some cancers are more likely to be detected during the later stages.
Autoimmune disorders are a little more tricky because the body’s defense system (immune system) is attacking itself, and the cause isn’t always known why. Typical treatments for autoimmune disorders include immunosuppressants (such as steroids), which suppress the immune system— as the name suggests.
As for current research on additional autoimmune disorder treatments, both monoclonal and recombinant antibodies are being used as effective treatments. However, monoclonal antibodies usually cause more pain, prompting the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands to ban them and use recombinant antibodies instead.
Recombinant antibodies are known as in vitro, meaning they take place in the cell lines. However, this method isn’t free of setbacks, with some of them being slow/labor-intensive and often causing additional immune reactions, which in turn require alterations to the antibodies. Still, the research looks promising in treating autoimmune disorders, and also cancer, and other illnesses.
The research looks very promising when it comes to treating cancer and autoimmune disorders. Both illnesses can seemingly come on suddenly without any warning, so early secretion and treatment are key to living a full and long life. Living a healthy lifestyle by staying active and eating nutritiously also helps. With options for treatments, there’s hope for those suffering from either or both illnesses.