Mesothelioma Immunotherapy for Veterans

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pills and a paper with the word immunotherapy on it

Veterans with mesothelioma may be eligible for a new type of treatment for their cancer: immunotherapy. Mesothelioma immunotherapy uses medicine to increase the body’s natural immune response to cancer. Learn more about immunotherapy and mesothelioma.

What Is Mesothelioma Immunotherapy?

Mesothelioma immunotherapy is a type of treatment that allows the body to better identify and attack cancerous cells. This helps to shrink tumors and may improve life expectancy among patients with mesothelioma.

Patients being treated with immunotherapy receive medicine to boost their immunity intravenously every two or three weeks. Immunotherapy is typically given alongside chemotherapy but may be also used as a substitute for it.

As of 2020, many immunotherapy drugs are still being studied in clinical trials so other treatments like chemotherapy are more commonly used to treat mesothelioma.

That said, some veterans with mesothelioma may be able to access immunotherapy through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System or by working with non-VA doctors.

Mesothelioma Immunotherapy Medications

Several immunotherapy drugs are currently being used to treat mesothelioma in trials. They are all considered checkpoint inhibitors. Checkpoint inhibitors can prevent cancer cells from escaping detection by the immune system.

The immune system uses T cells to kill harmful cells that cause disease. Cancer cells have proteins that bind with corresponding proteins on T cells, allowing them to avoid destruction. Checkpoint inhibitors do not allow cancer cells to bind with T cells.

Common immunotherapy drugs include:

  • Opdivo® (generic name nivolumab)
  • Keytruda® (pembrolizumab)
  • Yervoy® (ipilimumab)
  • Tecentriq® (atezolizumab)
  • Imfinzi® (durvalumab)
  • Bavencio® (avelumab)

Most of these immunotherapy drugs work by blocking the PD-L1 or CTLA-4 proteins.

Mesothelioma Immunotherapy Benefits

Mesothelioma immunotherapy may:

  • Improve Survival Rates: According to a 2020 study, 41% of pleural mesothelioma patients treated with Opdivo® and Yervoy® were alive after two years, compared to just 27% of those treated with chemotherapy.
  • Serve as an Alternative To Chemotherapy: When compared to chemotherapy in a 2019 study, immunotherapy shrank cancerous tumors in four times the amount of late-stage mesothelioma patients. This suggests that immunotherapy may be used if a patient doesn’t respond to chemotherapy.
  • Come With Less Side Effects Than Chemotherapy: Side effects from mesothelioma immunotherapy are usually much less serious than those from chemotherapy. Mesothelioma patients who can’t tolerate chemotherapy can still be treated for their disease.
  • Supplement Other Treatments: Immunotherapy can also be used alongside standard mesothelioma treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. A study recently showed a combination of chemotherapy and Imfinzi® led to an average life expectancy of 20.1 months.

Side Effects of Immunotherapy

Almost all mesothelioma treatments come with side effects and immunotherapy is no exception.

Side effects may include:

  • Constipation
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Itching
  • Nausea
  • Rash

Rarely, these side effects may worsen to indicate widespread inflammation or that the immune system is overreacting. Doctors can manage side effects by using steroids and other medicines.

How Can Veterans With Mesothelioma Access Immunotherapy?

Veterans may be able to access mesothelioma immunotherapy within the VA depending on their diagnosis and health care plans. For example, the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center offers immunotherapy to certain veterans with mesothelioma.

Veterans may also be able to receive immunotherapy from mesothelioma specialists closer to home through the VA MISSION Act. The act is a recent change to VA benefits and allows veterans to get care from approved non-VA doctors in local communities.

Learn more about mesothelioma immunotherapy and other treatments by requesting a Free Veterans Packet today.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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