Setting a diagnose for Chuck Peal was a real challenge for the doctors. He was thought to have a heart attack; his blood pressure plummeted, and his blood sugar spiked to ten times the normal levels. His body was basically attacking itself. Little did the doctors know that Chuck’s critical state was due to the therapy he was given that was intended to save his life.
In June 2015, Peal was battling melanoma when he decided to go with immunotherapy. This therapy is designed to break off the immune system in order to stop the disease from spreading, but it can have severe and irreversible side effects. This treatment caused acute-onset diabetes in Mr. Peal, and he’s not the only one.
This type of treatment is administered by giving the patients combination of drugs, most commonly nivolumab, and ipilimumab, and doctors have had a wide array of success treating otherwise fatal conditions, but the side-effects can be fatal and , require hospitalization, or are life-threatening.
The effectiveness of immunotherapy drugs and the side effects are bound by the same principles, because the therapy works by reversing a trick that cancer plays on the immune system. The cancer cells work by sending signals to the immune system cells that cause them to stand down. With other words, cancer is turning on the immune system’s brake. Now, this type of therapy turns the break-off, sometimes shrinking tumors in mere days.
Nevertheless, Chuck’s side-effects were extreme. When he started taking nivolumab and ipilimumab, he was told he might feel drowsy or nauseated and that he might get a rash, but what he went through almost cost him his life.
The side-effects started with a rash from his knees to his waist. After paying a visit to his doctor, he was prescribed steroids. Eventually, he started experiencing fever, nausea and was dying of thirst, and was throwing up everything he ate. Then, he was given two anti-nausea drugs, and by the following day he simply couldn’t move and was taken to the hospital. Within 24 days while being in hospital, his pancreas failed, his bowels became inflamed, and his kidneys became dysfunctional all while having a fever of a 103.
Yet, the gamble slowly started to pay off. Scans showed that immunotherapy has eliminated two of Mr. Peal’s cancer lesions and shrunk two others. While this type of treatment can be successful, the side-effects are irreversible. Still, diabetes is diabetes is far more handleable than melanoma.
Other thing you should know is that the side-effects vary and depend on the patient’s response to them. For some people, the side-effects are merely like flu symptoms. But, the number of people who became diabetic due to pancreas failure caused by this treatment is far bigger. Additionally, the drugs are new and many of the side effects have not yet been seen by doctors. Moreover, symptoms seem to appear at random, sometimes months after treatment.
According to doctors, the side-effects of these drugs are an understudied area. But, the main focus is on its anti-tumor effects, while the consequences, no matter how severe they may appear, seem to be worth it for many.