Women have always been told to be aware of lumps in the breast. Routine self-examination of breasts is considered important for the early identification of lumps and subsequent investigations to rule out cancer. Once considered deadly, advances in treatments have ensured increased survival rates in women with breast cancer. Nonetheless, it remains the number one cancer among Indian women.
Before understanding more about breast cancer, let us first understand ‘what is cancer’. Dr. Pradeep Mahajan, Regenerative Medicine Researcher, StemRx Bioscience Solutions Pvt. Ltd., Navi Mumbai, explains cancer as “the uncontrolled multiplication of cells”, which is something the immune system cannot handle effectively. What makes matters worse is that cancer cells are capable of ‘hiding’ from the immune system. He added that this is the reason why recent advances in cancer therapy have attempted to focus on training the immune cells in order to attack cancer cells.
Dr Mahajan explains that conventional cancer therapies are associated with hair loss, weight loss, general malaise etc. “The reason behind this is that treatments such as chemotherapy/radiotherapy not only target cancer cells but also normal cells. Our body has natural healing mechanisms, which are suppressed by these treatments, resulting in undesirable side effects.
Immunotherapy and other advances in cancer therapy are target-specific; thus, prolong the survival of the patient while maintaining their quality of life. Further helping us understand more about immunotherapy and its role in breast cancer, Dr Mahajan says, “In breast cancer (and other cancers), immunotherapy aims to educate the front-line immune cells (dendritic cells, natural killer cells, T-cells) of the body to target the cancer cells specifically. The treatment is minimally invasive. It is mostly a laboratory procedure to prepare the cells for transplantation in the patient’s body—think of it like a vaccine. Obtaining blood and transplanting the cells is via intravenous injection, which is similar to that done while taking blood tests.” Immunotherapy simply enhances the natural healing mechanisms of the body to fight cancer, which is overwhelmed by the load of the disease.
Another treatment is using stem cells to reconstruct defects left after surgery for cancer. In breast cancer specifically, fat-derived stem cells have shown promise in improving/maintaining the volume of the breast tissue, and have shown positive effects on improving blood circulation, reducing swelling/inflammation and scar tissue.
“We need treatments that enable a patient to go about his/her routine independently for as long as possible and not just prolong survival. Immunotherapy and stem cell treatments improve the quality of life of patients with breast cancer along with reducing the side effects of conventional treatments,” concludes Dr. Mahajan.
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