Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, about 13% of all new cancers are lung cancers. There will be an estimated 228,000 new cases of lung cancer this year, with more than 142,000 deaths. Moreover, the 5-year survival rate is less than 20%.
But the news surrounding lung cancer is improving. Roy Herbst, M.D., Ph.D., chief of Medical Oncology at Smilow Cancer Hospital, has been researching lung cancer and treating patients with the disease for more than 25 years. He discusses the facts about lung cancer, ways to reduce your risk, and how new treatments are significantly extending life for patients:
Who is at risk for Lung cancer?
Smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer, but people who have never smoked, as many as 15-20 percent, can get the disease. We also count second-hand smoke, other pollutants like radon gas, asbestos and genetic factors for increasing our risk for a lung cancer diagnosis.
Age is another risk factor for lung cancer. Most people diagnosed with the disease are 65 or older; a very small number of people diagnosed are younger than 45. The average age of patients when diagnosed is about 70.
What are the symptoms of Lung cancer?
Lung cancer can present itself in many ways, but a lot of times it can be as simple as a cough. Some patients also complain of sharp chest pains, shortness of breath or a tightness in the chest. Patients may also cough up blood. In the most advanced stages, lung cancer can spread to other parts of the body and people can become weak and have pain. The most common presentation is asymptomatic. Many times, we catch the disease by accident. A patient may have come into the hospital for another procedure and lung cancer is detected.
What are the latest advances in Lung cancer?
Historically, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery have been used to treat lung cancer. But for many patients, the chemotherapy was toxic and caused many side effects. Luckily, better therapies are quickly emerging, many developed here at Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital.
We can now personalize treatments for people with lung cancer. We've learned every diagnosis is different. When we look at a tumor, we look at genes and try to figure out what is causing that cancer to grow. For the people who have never smoked, there are specific targets we can now use, including immunotherapy, which stimulates a person's own immune system to attack cancer cells.
One of the biggest advances in lung cancer is multi-modality care. If you get lung cancer, it's important to be seen by a group of professionals, including an oncologist, a surgeon, a radiation oncologist, a social worker, etc. You don't know going in who you will need to fight the disease, so it's important to be ready to attack and fight it from all angles. Teamwork counts!
Is there screening for Lung cancer?
Yes! The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends yearly lung cancer screening for high-risk patients. They should be between the ages of 55 and 80 who have smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years and quit less than 15 years ago. A low-dose CT scan is used. Studies have shown this screening improves survival by detecting lung cancer at an earlier stage. Screening is covered by most insurance.