The immune system is a complex system of cells, tissues and organs that work together to defend the body from bacteria, viruses or harmful mutations such as cancer. When a patient is diagnosed with mesothelioma, it’s important to understand how treatment will affect the immune system and ways to strengthen immune function to achieve the best possible treatment outcomes.
How Does the Immune System Work?
The immune system kills damaged or infected cells that attempt to cause disease within the body. Lymphocytes or white blood cells are integral to the immune system.
There are 3 main types of white blood cells:
- T cells
- B cells
- Natural killer cells
T cells destroy infected cells and tell B cells to make antibodies. Natural killer cells are specialized lymphocytes that specifically kill cells that are infected with a virus or mutated cells such as cancer cells.
These white blood cells are produced or stored in the bone marrow, thymus or spleen and use a specialized part of the circulatory system called the lymphatic system to travel around the body.
Innate vs. Acquired Immunity
The immune system can be differentiated in two ways—innate immunity and acquired immunity.
Innate immunity is the protection we have from birth, which includes:
- Barrier skin around our body
- Mucus produced by our cells to capture infectious particles
- Hairs that move our bacterial filled mucus
- Stomach acid
- Protective bacteria in our digestive system
Acquired immunity is the memory our white blood cells gather from fighting off disease.
The Immune System and Mesothelioma
Our immune system works every day to protect our body from various types of cancer. White blood cells are the leaders of this fight, as they work to either kill cells before they become cancerous or stop cancerous cells from replicating and spreading.
Some white blood cells spit out chemicals called interferons and interleukins into the bloodstream that cause cancer cells to die. Other white blood cells create antibodies, which attach themselves to cancer cells and cause apoptosis (cell death).
Mesothelioma cells are simply mutated healthy cells, so it can be difficult for our immune system to attack them. Sometimes the immune system knows that cancer cells are present. But due to the aggressive nature of some mesothelioma types, the immune system can become so overwhelmed that it fails to respond to the threat.
Cancer cells can be tricky, as they can turn off the body’s immune response or use innate and adaptive immune cells to help them grow. Even after a patient is diagnosed with mesothelioma, the immune system still plays a huge role in the fight.
Mesothelioma and mesothelioma treatment can weaken the immune system, so it is important to be aware of these effects and ways you can strengthen your immune system to have the best possible treatment outcome.
How Mesothelioma Treatment Affects the Immune System
Mesothelioma treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, steroids and targeted cancer drugs can weaken both the innate and acquired parts of the immune system.
The most common effect of treatments on the immune system is a reduction in the number of white blood cells available within the body. This is from a reduced function of the bone marrow, the place where white blood cells are made. Additionally, the number of neutrophils (innate defense cells) in the body can be temporarily reduced by chemotherapy. Radiation to different parts of the body can also damage the hairs that remove infectious mucus out of the body.
With a weakened immune system, mesothelioma patients can be more susceptible to bacterial or fungal infections after treatment. These infections can further weaken the immune system and reduce the effectiveness of treatment.
Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System
There are several ways you can strengthen your immune system to ensure your body is working in conjunction with your prescribed mesothelioma treatment:
- Reduce Stress: As difficult as it may be after receiving a diagnosis, try to reduce your stress as much as possible. When your body is stressed out, your immune system does not work well.
- Get Enough Sleep: Sleep well and try to aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night. A lack of sleep can strain your immune system as it needs rest to function.
- Eat Healthy: Make sure you are eating a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables and protein and staying away from empty sugars and processed foods.
- Exercise Regularly: Partake in light to moderate daily exercise for around 40 to 60 minutes a day. Exercise produces powerful hormones and massively improves immune function.
- Supplement Your Nutrition: Talk to your doctor about which supplements and vitamins would work well with your prescribed medications and help to boost your overall immune function
Taking steps towards strengthening your immune system before, during and after treatment will result in the best possible mesothelioma prognosis.