Understanding your immune system
Medical research suggests that a strong immune system does protect against cancer. Experts don’t understand exactly how the immune system tells the difference between cancer cells and normal cells, but they know it’s possible.
Your immune system is your body’s way of fighting off sickness, germs, and infection. Your immune system isn’t separate from other functions in your body. Instead, all the different cells in your body work together to offer immune function. When you have a strong immune system, you’re less likely to get sick or develop chronic health conditions like cancer.
Cells that make up your immune system
Each type of cell in your body plays a different role in fighting off illness and infection.
B cells. These cells send out antibodies that defend your system against more dangerous cells. Anytime you get hurt or are exposed to germs, B cells respond. For example, when you are exposed to a virus like the flu, B cells begin producing specific flu virus antibodies to keep you from getting sick.
It’s also possible for these B cells to produce cancer and tumor antibodies. When antibodies attach to harmful cells, it flags the cells as dangerous, so your immune system responds appropriately.
CD4+. These “helpers” serve as communication between cells, targeting responses toward harmful cells so that your body’s response is efficient.
CD8+. These “killer” T cells are hard at work every day attacking cells in your body that become infected. They typically target illnesses like a virus, but they can also attack cancer cells.
Dendritic cells. These cells serve as learning cells. When they come into contact with a virus or cancer cell, they eat it. Then, they display the dangerous proteins on their outside so your other immune cells can learn about and identify harmful cells. This speeds up the process of fighting off illnesses and infections.
Macrophages. These are cell powerhouses that can destroy large numbers of harmful cells like bacteria. They work similarly to dendritic cells because they show dangerous proteins to other cells for a faster immune response.
Regulatory T cells. These are the supervisor cells. They oversee the work of other cells to ensure an appropriate response. If you have an autoimmune disease, though, regulatory T cells may not function correctly, leading to an unnecessary immune response.
The role of tissues and organs in immune response
Your body also responds on a larger scale to infections, illness, and cancer. Your body’s tissue and organs work together to protect your body against harm.
Bone marrow. This inner core of your bones is one of the most important parts of your immune system. Bone marrow creates cells based on what your body needs at a given time. New cells can turn into white blood cells, red blood cells, or blood platelets.
Lymph nodes. These glands are strategically located throughout your body and serve as a filter. They remove dangerous cells like viruses, bacteria, and even cancer cells. They are the organs where T cells gather.
Skin. Did you know that your skin is your body’s largest organ? It’s a strong barrier that protects the rest of your body from the outside world.
Spleen. This organ sits to the left of your stomach. It filters blood and stores platelets and white blood cells until your body needs them. B cells also form in your spleen to multiply when your body detects dangerous cells.
Thymus gland. Located right behind your breastbone, this gland offers a place for immune cells to mature enough until they can fight illness and infection.
Boosting your body's immune response
Although medical professionals don’t know why exactly, your immune system may not be strong enough to fight cancer alone. Immunotherapy is a medical treatment that helps your immune system target cancer cells specifically.
Cancer and tumors like to hide within your body, playing tricks on your immune system. Immune cells can surround a tumor and never know that it’s there. Immunotherapy, though, offers several solutions.
Blocking tumors. Medications like Optivo (nivolumab) and Keytruda (pembrolizumab) take away a tumor’s ability to hide from your immune system. Then, cancer cells are obvious, and your body’s natural immune function can go to work, attacking dangerous cells.
T-cell transfer therapy. Doctors remove cancer cells from within a tumor and change the cells so that they will fight cancer instead of fueling it. Doctors use a needle to insert the changed cells back into your body.
Monoclonal antibodies. These antibodies are created in a lab without using any of your immune cells. They are designed to attach to cancer cells in your body, essentially marking them so your immune cells know what to attack.
Cancer Research Institute: "How does the immune system work?"
Journal of Frontiers in Immunology: "Does the Immune System Naturally Protect Against Cancer?."
University Hospitals: "Using the Body's Immune System To Fight Cancer."
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