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Lung Cancer is Pervasive, But There’s Progress in Fighting Deadliest Tumors

Even as the overall smoking rate is projected to continue declining in the U.S., 4.4 million Americans could die from lung cancer during the next five decades, says a newly published study [1].

For now, lung cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S. for both men and women, and it remains the No. 1 cause of cancer death. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. And nearly half of lung cancer diagnoses are late-stage or advanced forms of the disease.

Smoking significantly raises the risk for many cancers and it is, by far, the leading cause of lung cancer. Nonetheless, as many as 20 percent of the people who die from lung cancer have never smoked or never used other forms of tobacco. The rate of lung cancer deaths among “never smokers” is projected to rise over the next 50 years.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and the American Cancer Society [2] is highlighting its campaign by helping fund research to help prevent, screen for, diagnose, and treat lung cancer.

No. 1 Cancer Killer

The only recommended screening test for lung cancer is low-dose computer tomography (also called a low-dose CT scan, or LDCT). Such a test involves an X-ray machine that scans the body and uses low doses of radiation to make detailed pictures of the lungs.

But these screenings are recommended [3] only for certain adults at a high risk for lung cancer, including former smokers. Individuals eligible for screening represent fewer than 50 percent of newly diagnosed lung cancer cases. Moreover, because symptoms can be non-existent, mild or not considered serious enough [4] in the early development of lung cancer tumors, many patients are diagnosed with the disease in late stage, and that creates a bigger challenge in keeping the cancer from spreading or intensifying, he says.

Despite the screening challenges, new treatments that use advances in medicine, technology and the patient’s own immune system to fight lung cancer are fueling optimism after decades of survival rates not increasing much for late-stage cancer diagnoses.

But two different approaches to fighting lung cancer, particularly in its advanced forms, have pushed survival rates upward and improved the quality of lives of late-stage cancer patients. These two approaches are molecularly targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Molecularly Targeted Therapy

One type of evolving treatment uses drugs or other substances to target specific molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. Blocking these molecules may kill cancer cells or may keep them from growing or spreading. Molecularly targeted therapy may cause less harm to normal cells and may have fewer side effects than other types of cancer treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy.

There is a group of cancers in which there a gene mutation in the human body that drives the tumor. About one-third to 40 percent of lung cancers have these mutations, he says.

In some patients, molecularly targeted therapy involves taking pills over a couple of years. In some patients, the medication can be prescribed for many years.

Immunotherapy: Patient’s Immune System Fights Cancer

Immunotherapy is a treatment that helps cancer patients use their own immune system to fight the cancer, or keep it from spreading. Normally, the immune system helps the body fight infections and other diseases. It is made up of white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system.

The field of immunotherapy to fight cancer is evolving quickly and holding much promise in fighting lung cancer and other cancers. Immunotherapies either stimulate the activities of specific components of the immune system, or counteract signals produced by cancer cells that suppress immune responses, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it is committed to expediting the approval of immunotherapy drugs [5] to fight different types of cancer.