Columbus Regional Hospital has added to its tool box of cancer treatments.

Immunotherapy has become increasingly popular in the past five years, using the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

This newer option for patients, in addition to the traditional chemotherapy and targeted therapy, is significantly different than the others.

Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but it also can harm healthy cells, said Kelsey Finch, an oncology pharmacist at Columbus Regional. Chemotherapy also can have strong side effects on patients, such as nausea and hair loss, she said.

Targeted therapy is directed at specific gene markers on tumor cells. It has reduced side effects, but is not available for every type of cancer, Finch said.

Immunotherapy represents a new wave of cancer treatment, she said.

“Instead of finding cells and killing them, it uses … our immune cells to fight off cancer,” Finch said.

The body’s immune system is intended to find imperfect cells and get rid of them.

“The body makes more immune cells to find tumor cells and eliminate them naturally,” Finch said.

Immunotherapy patients typically don’t experience the side effects that result from chemotherapy, she said. They experience less nausea and kidney discomfort, and less hair falls out — although a rash and some inflammation is common.

Immunotherapy can be a better option for the elderly or others who aren’t in good enough shape physically to withstand the side effects of chemotherapy, Finch said.

Immunotherapy has been approved for some types of cancers, Finch said, such as:

  • Metastatic melanoma
  • Lung
  • Bladder
  • Brain
  • Lymphomas

It is being studied for breast, colorectal and prostate cancers, she said.

In the past calendar year, Columbus Regional Hospital has treated 49 patients with immunotherapy medication for a total of 342 treatments, Finch said.

Alicia Mitchell, a registered nurse in the critical care unit at Columbus Regional Hospital, had the option to undergo chemotherapy treatments for her melanoma, but opted for immunotherapy after researching it and liking what she learned.

Mitchell, 29, was diagnosed with melanoma in June 2015. The primary spot on her skin was a pea-sized mole on her left shoulder blade.

She said she believes using tanning beds as a teenager and young adult probably contributed to her developing skin cancer.

Mitchell said she noticed the color of the mole changing, and then it started to bleed. Initially Mitchell thought she had scratched the mole.

Eventually she saw a dermatologist and had a biopsy performed. Later she went to a plastic surgeon to remove the cancerous mole.

About 6 inches of tissue was removed, plus some lymph nodes from the left arm region, Mitchell said. Another surgery was performed in August 2015 to remove cancerous lymph nodes.

She started immunotherapy about four to six weeks after the second surgery. She receives 90-minute infusions of the drug Ipilimumab, known generically as yervoy.

Mitchell is on a three-year regimen of 16 treatments. The first four treatments are given once every three weeks. Afterward, they are administered once every three months. She finished her 11th treatment in September.

“I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to the side effects,” Mitchell said.

The wife and mother of a 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer before her final year of nursing school, but was able to continue her education through treatments and is able to work now while receiving them.

“I didn’t miss a beat,” she said.

The one noticeable side effect, however, is that Mitchell lost her hair — something she said usually doesn’t happen to immunotherapy patients.

She takes that in stride, though.

“I’ve been lucky when it comes to how I feel,” Mitchell said.

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.