The immune system protects the body from foreign invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and toxins. However, the immune system struggles to defend the body against cancer – especially on its own.

Cancer cells have the ability to infiltrate the immune system by avoiding its defensive line of cells. This will compromise the immune system and cause it to stop functioning properly.

This blog explains what the immune system is, how cancer diminishes its impact, and what medicines like immunotherapy do to empower the immune system against cancers like mesothelioma.

 

What Is the Immune System?

The immune system is a strong and complex network of cells, organs, blood vessels, lymph nodes and more. There are five cells in the immune system responsible for fighting off cancer and infection: macrophages, dendritic cells, natural killer (NK) cells, B-cells and T-cells.

The immune system is also made up of the lymphatic system, which is a network of vessels and lymph nodes. These nodes help produce T cells to fight infections and diseases, and the vessels speed up the immune response.

Although there is a substantial defense team within the immune system, it seems to fall short when facing cancer cells.

 

How Does Cancer Impact the Immune System?

The immune system is always on high alert for any signs of danger, like bacteria and viruses. Tumors, however, can often bypass the immune system and expand uncontrollably. When the immune system becomes overpowered by a malignant tumor, it can no longer accurately identify and respond to threats. 

 

Subduing Our T cells

In order to combat intrusive cells and tumors, the immune system relies on specialized cells known as T cells, which are responsible for recognizing and attacking invaders. The immune response begins when these T cells encounter antigens – molecules on the surface of foreign invaders such as bacteria or viruses. Once an antigen has been identified, a series of chemical signals are sent out by T cells, activating other immune cells to respond and eradicate the pathogen.

Just as the immune system is smart and powerful, cancer cells are, too. For example, they may produce a molecule that masks the presence of an antigen, preventing it from being recognized by T-cells. Sometimes, cancer cells may produce chemicals or proteins posing as an almost “invisibility cloak” for themselves, hiding them from T cells, so they can continue to grow and divide unimpeded.

 

Cancer and Immunoediting

While evading the immune system’s detection is one aspect, cancerous tumors can also actively suppress it. This is called immunoediting, a process in which the tumor releases molecules that both inhibit the function of certain immune cells and activate others that can be beneficial to its growth and survival. In some instances, cancer cells may release a protein stimulating the activity of regulatory T cells, which prevents other immune cells from recognizing and attacking tumor cells.

Just as current therapies, like chemotherapy, can temporarily disrupt some of these defense mechanisms, cancer has also found ways around these treatments. Tumors may develop resistance to chemotherapy by increasing the expression of a gene called P-glycoprotein (Pgp), which pumps chemotherapeutics out of the cell before they have time to have any effect.

 

Can Cancer Treatment Weaken the Immune System?

The effects of cancer alone can be detrimental to the body, but cancer treatment can also have long-lasting effects on the body and the immune system.

There are many forms of cancer treatment, all with different approaches. Each type of treatment has different effects on the body and the immune system. 

Chemotherapy drugs kill fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells, but chemotherapy may also kill fast-growing healthy cells. The body’s bone marrow contains fast-growing healthy cells, which produces immune cells. If chemotherapy attacks the healthy bone marrow cells, the immune system will not be able to perform to the best of its ability, leaving you susceptible to illness, bacteria and other threats.

Surgery, especially major cancer surgery, can negatively affect the immune system. Cancer surgeries are often aggressive approaches to cancer treatment and require extensive recovery time, specifically for preventing infection and proper healing of wounds and incisions.

Radiation therapy exposes cancer cells to energy waves that can kill or stunt the cells growth. Radiation will kill cancer cells, but it may also damage healthy cells that could affect the rest of the body’s functionality.

 

Immunotherapy Treatment Supports the Immune System Against Cancer 

Although most cancer treatments can negatively affect the immune system, immunotherapy treatment enables the immune system to properly fight off foreign invaders, like cancer cells. Immunotherapy works with the immune system to increase functionality and fight off cancer cells.

Here are some ways immunotherapy drugs fight cancer: 

  • Attach to or kill cancer cells, which releases previously hidden proteins and alarms the immune system
  • Helps the patient’s immune cells recognize cancerous antigens and target cells with similar antigens
  • Attaches to proteins on cancer cells and signals to the immune system to respond
  • Creates more effective immune cells to fight cancer

Immunotherapy has similar side effects to chemotherapy, but they often present themselves less often and as less severe. Some side effects of immunotherapy may be fatigue, nausea, dizziness, weakness, body aches and skin rashes. 

Cancer specialists, such as doctors specializing in treating mesothelioma, often compare immunotherapy and chemotherapy to determine the best treatment plan. Most studies show patients respond better to immunotherapy treatments versus chemotherapy.

 

How To Boost the Immune System After Cancer Treatment

It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle during and after cancer treatment. By eating a balanced diet, resting well, and exercising regularly, you can improve your chances of recovery and potentially speed up your recovery time. 

A few ways to boost the immune system after cancer are: 

  • Eating a balanced diet 
  • Exercising regularly 
  • Staying hydrated
  • Minimizing stress
  • Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule
  • Reducing alcohol consumption 
  • Eliminating a smoking habit   

Cancer can have long-lasting effects on the body and the immune system. It is an aggressive illness composed of intelligent cells that know how to survive in the body.

Treatments for cancer can take a toll on the immune system, causing it to lose functionality. Not all cancer treatments will damage the immune system, but there are risks. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help improve your immune system after cancer treatment.

 

Frequently Asked Questions About Cancer and the Immune System

  • Are cancer survivors immunocompromised?

    Not all cancer survivors are immunocompromised, but some cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy can weaken the immune system temporarily. It is important for cancer survivors to take precautions to avoid infections and to stay up to date on vaccinations.
  • How does cancer affect the immune system?

    Cancer can weaken the immune system by releasing substances that suppress the immune system's ability to recognize and attack cancer cells. Additionally, cancer cells can evade detection by the immune system by producing proteins that make them appear harmless or by changing the composition of their cell surface. This can lead to an increased risk of infections and other diseases.
  • What are dendritic cells?

    Dendritic cells are a type of immune cell that play a crucial role in recognizing and presenting foreign antigens to other immune cells in order to mount an effective immune response. They are found throughout the body, including in the lungs where they can come into contact with inhaled asbestos fibers.
  • What is the immune system made up of?

    The immune system is made up of various cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body from harmful pathogens and foreign substances. These include white blood cells, antibodies, lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, and bone marrow.
  • What is cancer of the immune system?

    Cancer of the immune system is also known as lymphoma, which is a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and tissues that helps the body fight infections. The lymphatic system includes lymph nodes, spleen, thymus gland, and bone marrow. There are two main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, and weight loss. Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplantation.
  • What cells fight cancer?

    There are several types of cells that can fight cancer, including T cells, natural killer cells, and dendritic cells. These cells are part of the immune system and work to identify and attack cancer cells.
  • What are regulatory T cells?

    Regulatory T cells, also known as Tregs, are a type of immune cell that help to regulate the immune system by preventing overactivity and autoimmune responses. They play an important role in preventing the development of cancer and autoimmune diseases.
  • What is cancer of the lymph nodes called?

    Cancer of the lymph nodes is called lymphoma.
  • What is a T cell receptor?

    T cell receptors (TCRs) are proteins found on the surface of T cells, which are a type of white blood cell that plays a critical role in the immune system. TCRs are responsible for recognizing and binding to specific antigens, which are substances that can trigger an immune response in the body.
  • What is p-glycoprotein?

    P-glycoprotein is a protein found in the cell membrane that helps to transport substances in and out of cells. It can also play a role in drug resistance and the development of certain diseases, including mesothelioma.
  • What does immunotherapy consist of?

    Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses a patient's own immune system to fight cancer cells. It often involves the use of drugs that stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer cells. Immunotherapy has shown promise in treating mesothelioma.
  • What does cancer do to your body?

    Cancer is a disease that begins when cells in the body start to grow uncontrollably. These cells can form tumors, invade nearby tissues, and spread to other parts of the body. The effects of cancer on the body depend on the type and stage of the cancer, but can include symptoms such as fatigue, pain, weight loss, and difficulty breathing. Ultimately, cancer can be life-threatening if not treated effectively.
  • What are the symptoms of cancer in the lymph nodes?

    The symptoms of cancer in the lymph nodes may include swollen lymph nodes, fever, night sweats, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and itching. However, it's important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so it's best to consult with a medical professional for an accurate diagnosis.
  • What causes cancer in lymph nodes?

    Cancer in lymph nodes can be caused by the spread of cancer cells from a primary tumor site, such as the lungs or breast, or it can be caused by cancers that originate in the lymphatic system itself, such as lymphoma. Exposure to certain toxins, including asbestos, may also increase the risk of developing lymph node cancer.
  • What is dendritic cells?

    Dendritic cells are a type of immune cell that play a key role in presenting antigens to other cells of the immune system, helping to initiate an immune response. They are found in tissues throughout the body and are particularly important in activating T cells to recognize and attack cancer cells.
  • What is the survival rate of cancer in the lymph nodes?

    The survival rate of cancer in the lymph nodes varies depending on the type of cancer and its stage. In general, the presence of cancer in the lymph nodes indicates a more advanced stage of cancer and a decreased chance of survival. For mesothelioma, the five-year survival rate for patients with cancer in the lymph nodes is typically less than 10%.
  • When are natural killer cells activated?

    Natural killer cells are activated when they encounter cells that are infected with viruses or have become cancerous.
  • Where are NK cells found?

    NK cells are found throughout the body, but they are most commonly found in the blood, liver, spleen and lungs.
  • Where are NK cells produced?

    NK cells, also known as natural killer cells, are produced in the bone marrow.
  • Where do dendritic cells come from?

    Dendritic cells are a type of immune cell that originate from bone marrow and are found throughout the body in tissues such as the skin, lungs, and digestive tract.
  • Where are dendritic cells found?

    Dendritic cells are found in tissues like the skin, lungs, and intestines, as well as in lymphoid organs like lymph nodes and spleen.
  • Where are macrophages found in the skin?

    Macrophages are found in the dermis layer of the skin.
  • Why does the immune system not attack cancer cells?

    The immune system may not recognize cancer cells as abnormal because they often have the same surface proteins as normal cells. Additionally, cancer cells can release substances that suppress the immune system's ability to attack them.
  • Why does chemotherapy weaken the immune system?

    Chemotherapy weakens the immune system because it targets rapidly dividing cells, including healthy cells that contribute to immunity. This can lead to a decreased ability to fight infections and an increased risk of illness.
  • Why would a doctor order a bone marrow biopsy?

    A bone marrow biopsy is a medical procedure in which a small sample of bone marrow tissue is removed and examined under a microscope. This procedure is typically performed to diagnose and monitor various blood disorders and cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.
  • How does the immune system fight cancer?

    The immune system fights cancer by recognizing and attacking cancer cells as foreign invaders. This process involves the activation of immune cells, production of antibodies, and destruction of cancer cells through various mechanisms. However, in some cases, cancer cells can evade the immune system's attacks and continue to grow and spread.
  • How does immunotherapy work?

    Immunotherapy is a treatment that works by harnessing the power of the patient's own immune system to fight cancer. It involves administering drugs that either activate the immune system or remove the barriers to its effectiveness. In mesothelioma, immunotherapy drugs can help shrink tumors, slow their growth or stop them from spreading.
  • How fast do cancerous lymph nodes grow?

    The growth rate of cancerous lymph nodes can vary greatly, depending on the type and stage of cancer. Generally, the growth rate can range from a few weeks to several months. It is important to seek medical attention if you notice any swelling or changes in your lymph nodes.
  • How to boost your immune system to fight cancer?

    There is no guaranteed way to boost your immune system to fight cancer but there are some steps that may help to support your immune system and overall health. These steps include: maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough rest, managing stress, and avoiding unhealthy habits.

    It's important to note that these steps alone may not prevent or cure cancer, but they can help support overall health and improve the body's ability to fight cancer. It's also important to work with a healthcare provider to determine the best approach for your individual needs.

  • How regulatory T cells work?

    Regulatory T cells are a type of immune cell that helps to maintain immune balance and prevent autoimmune diseases. They achieve this by suppressing or regulating the activity of other immune cells, such as T cells and B cells, which can recognize and attack the body's own tissues. In mesothelioma, regulatory T cells may play a role in promoting tumor growth and suppressing the immune response against cancer cells.
  • How do natural killer cells work?

    Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell that can recognize and destroy abnormal cells, including cancer cells. They work by identifying cells that have lower levels of certain proteins on their surface, which is a sign of abnormality. Once identified, natural killer cells release chemicals to kill the abnormal cell.
  • How to boost immune system to fight cancer?

    There is no direct way to boost the immune system to fight mesothelioma. However, a healthy lifestyle including regular exercise and a balanced diet can help support overall health and potentially improve treatment outcomes. It is important to work with a medical team to determine the best treatment plan for an individual's specific case.
  • How does immunotherapy fight cancer?

    Immunotherapy fights cancer by using the body's own immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. This can be done by either stimulating the immune system to target cancer cells or by introducing immune cells that are engineered to recognize and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy has shown promising results in treating mesothelioma, as it can help to slow the growth of tumors and improve survival rates. However, not all patients may be eligible for this type of treatment and it may not work for everyone.
  • How to treat cancerous lymph nodes?

    The treatment of cancerous lymph nodes depends on the type and stage of cancer. Treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments. A medical professional will determine the best course of treatment for each individual patient.
  • How fast do malignant tumors grow?

    The growth rate of malignant tumors can vary greatly and depends on various factors, including the type of cancer and individual characteristics of the patient. In the case of mesothelioma, it typically grows slowly and may take decades to develop after asbestos exposure. However, once it is diagnosed, it can progress rapidly, making early detection critical to improving treatment outcomes.
  • How do B cells recognize antigens?

    B cells recognize antigens through their B cell receptors (BCRs) that are present on the surface of each B cell. Each B cell receptor is specific to a particular antigen, and the receptor structure is determined by the genetic information encoded in the B cell's DNA.
  • How do radiation and chemotherapy affect cancer cells?

    Radiation and chemotherapy work by damaging or destroying cancer cells. Radiation uses high-energy particles to damage the DNA of cancer cells, making it difficult for them to divide and grow. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. Both treatments can also affect healthy cells, which can cause side effects. However, they can be effective in shrinking tumors and slowing the progression of cancer.
  • How long do cancer cells live?

    Cancer cells can survive and continue to divide for an indefinite period of time, leading to the growth and spread of cancer. However, the lifespan of cancer cells can vary depending on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the individual's overall health and response to treatment.
  • Can your immune system fight off cancer?

    Our immune system is capable of fighting off cancer, but it depends on various factors such as the type of cancer and the stage of cancer. Mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive cancer that can be challenging for the immune system to fight on its own. Therefore, mesothelioma treatment often involves a combination of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation to fight the cancer. Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a nutritious diet, exercise, and stress management can also help support the immune system's ability to fight cancer.
  • Can your body fight cancer on its own?

    In some cases, the body's immune system can recognize and attack cancer cells. However, in most cases, cancer cells have mechanisms to evade the immune system. Treatment options such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation can help boost the immune system's ability to fight cancer.
  • How long can you live with peritoneal cancer?

    The survival rate for peritoneal mesothelioma varies depending on the stage of cancer at diagnosis and other factors. However, on average, patients with peritoneal mesothelioma are expected to live for 6 months to 5 years after diagnosis. It is important to seek treatment as soon as possible and discuss prognosis with your healthcare provider.
  • Can you sleep during chemotherapy treatment?

    Yes, it is possible to sleep during chemotherapy treatment. In fact, many patients choose to do so as fatigue and sleep disturbances are common side effects of the treatment. However, it is important to discuss any concerns about sleeping during treatment with your oncologist or healthcare team.

Sources & Author

How does the immune system work? When it comes to cancer, it’s complicated. Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Retrieved from: https://www.cancercenter.com/community/blog/2017/10/how-does-the-immune-system-work-when-it-comes-to-cancer-its-complicated. Accessed: 10/24/22.

Why People with Cancer Are More Likely to Get Infections. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/why-people-with-cancer-are-at-risk.html. Accessed: 10/24/22.

The Immune System. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/the-immune-system#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20immune%20system,and%20proteins%20that%20work%20together.. Accessed: 10/24/22.

What is Cancer? National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/what-is-cancer#:~:text=Cancer%20cells%20can%20break%20away,and%20spread%20into%20surrounding%20tissues.. Accessed: 10/27/22.

How do cancer treatments damage the immune system? Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Retrieved from: https://www.cancercenter.com/community/blog/2020/05/covid-cancer-treatments-immune-system. Accessed: 10/28/22.

Are All Cancer Survivors Immunocompromised? Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/cancer/are-cancer-survivors-immunocompromised. Accessed: 10/31/22.

Camryn Keeble image

About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is the senior content writer and editor for Mesothelioma Guide. She creates mesothelioma-related content for the Mesothelioma Guide website. Camryn's goal is to decipher advanced information regarding mesothelioma into informative, simplified content to educate those affected by mesothelioma. She also works diligently to raise awareness of mesothelioma and its effects on patients and their loved ones.

    Sources & Author

Image of Camryn Keeble who is Mesothelioma Guide's senior content writer

About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is the senior content writer and editor for Mesothelioma Guide. She creates mesothelioma-related content for the Mesothelioma Guide website. Camryn's goal is to decipher advanced information regarding mesothelioma into informative, simplified content to educate those affected by mesothelioma. She also works diligently to raise awareness of mesothelioma and its effects on patients and their loved ones.