Cancer and the Immune System

Cancer and the Immune System: Keys to Health

We all have cancer cells — cells that grow abnormally — in our bodies. It is generally believed that the immune system’s natural capacity to detect and destroy abnormal cells prevents the development of many cancers.

Nevertheless, some cancer cells are able to evade detection and continue to grow. For example, cancer cells can undergo genetic changes that make them less “visible” to the immune system, using different mechanisms to suppress immune responses or to avoid being killed by our immune system cells.

Before going into more about immune-supporting modalities, it is useful to have a bit more background. The following explanation on how the immune system operates is based on information provided by the National Cancer Institute.

What is the Immune System?

The immune system is a complex network of organs, tissues, and specialized cells. It recognizes and destroys foreign invaders, such as bacteria or viruses, as well as some damaged, diseased, or abnormal cells in the body, including cancer cells. An immune response is triggered when the immune system encounters a substance, called an antigen, it recognizes as “foreign.”

Why are White Blood Cells So Important?

White blood cells are the primary players in immune system responses. Some white blood cells, including macrophages and natural killer cells, patrol the body, seeking out foreign invaders and diseased, damaged, or dead cells. These white blood cells provide a general—or nonspecific—level of immune protection. Cytotoxic T cells and B cells are other types of white blood cells.

What is the Role of T cells and B cells?

Cytotoxic T cells and B cells act against specific targets. Cytotoxic T cells release chemicals that can directly destroy microbes or abnormal cells. B cells make antibodies that latch onto foreign intruders or abnormal cells and tag them for destruction by another component of the immune system. Still other white blood cells help to ensure that cytotoxic T cells and B cells do their jobs effectively.

How Does Immunotherapy for Cancer Work?

The goal of immunotherapy for cancer is to overcome these barriers to an effective anticancer immune response. These biological therapies restore or increase the activities of specific immune-system components or counteract immunosuppressive signals produced by cancer cells.

How are Monoclonal Antibodies Used in Cancer Treatment?

Monoclonal antibodies, or MAbs, are created in the lab by injecting mice with an antigen from human cells, harvesting the antibody-producing cells and individually fusing them with a cancerous B cell. This produces a fusion cell that produces identical (monoclonal) cells used in a variety of cancer treatments. Through genetic engineering, mouse antibodies are often “humanized” and made more effective by replacing as much of the mouse portion of the antibody as possible with human portions.

You can recognize treatments that are this type of therapy by the suffix “mab” in the generic name, such as Rituximab (e.g., Rituxan).

What are cytokines?

Cytokines are signaling proteins that are produced by white blood cells which help mediate and regulate immune responses, inflammation, and hematopoiesis (new blood cell formation). Some cytokines act to make disease worse (pro-inflammatory), whereas others serve to reduce inflammation and promote healing (anti-inflammatory). Two types of cytokines are used to treat patients with cancer: interferons (INFs) and interleukins (ILs), while a third type, called hematopoietic growth factors, is used to counteract some of the side effects of certain chemotherapy regimens.

What Integrative Therapies Support the Immune System?

Immunotherapies are complex and potentially life-saving therapies which may have very serious side effects. However, in recent studies, some integrative therapies have been shown to improve immune system functioning, and may be helpful to explore.


A single session of massage may boost the immune system, according to 2010 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, randomly assigned 53 healthy adults to receive one session of either Swedish massage or light touch, finding that a single session of Swedish massage produces measurable biological effects and may have an effect on the immune system.

Stress Relief

Taking steps to relieve stress may directly impact the immune system in a positive way. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 showed that people under chronic stress (experiencing prolonged stressful life events) were more susceptible to colds, and the that the inflammatory response involved in developing simple colds also involved plays a role in a range of more serious diseases.


Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center investigated how probiotics might work to slow the growth of certain cancerous tumors. They documented the mechanisms of the probiotic’s effects on the proliferation of cancer cells and how it can help to promote cancer cell death. The researchers also noted that understanding these effects may lead to development of probiotic-based regimens for preventing colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.


In a 2012 preliminary study, researchers from the University of Nebraska found that T cells, a type of immune cell that attacks a variety of infectious agents as well as cancer cells, became more effective in cancer patients after a 12 week exercise program (which included strength, endurance and flexibility). After chemotherapy, previous research had shown that the majority of T cells become senescent, meaning they had a decreased ability to fight infections and cancers. The exercisers were able to rebuild the population of responsive (naïve) T cells, which is critical for regaining normal immune function and cancer-fighting ability.

Yoga and Walking

A preliminary 2013 study from Norway showed the effects of the two practices, yoga and walking, on gene expression. Researchers compared the practice of a gentle yoga and breathing practice to taking a walk in nature and listening to music. After each session, researchers drew blood and tested peripheral blood mononuclear cells, which play a key role in the body’s immune system.

While the walking program showed a positive impact on 38 genes, the yoga program produced positive changes in 111 genes — almost three times as much.


The effect of integrative modalities on the immune system looks promising, although further studies are needed. The relative safety of integrative modalities and their ability to offer other positive side effects besides the potential immune system boost make these modalities a good choice to discuss with your medical practitioners and then incorporate into your lifestyle plans where appropriate.

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