Lung cancer was expected to kill 136,000 people in 2020, making it the top cause of cancer death. Only about 19% of people who get lung cancer survive five years after diagnosis. But lung cancer doctors say there are many promising new therapies today that are revolutionizing how they attack lung cancer and help save lives. Here’s what they want you to know, whether you’re living with lung cancer yourself or have a loved one with the disease.
“New treatments are bringing new hope.”
David Carbone, MD, says lung cancer today is “not your father’s lung cancer,” that treatment today is different from what it was even 10 years ago. “There are dozens of new therapies,” Carbone says. Among them: targeted medications that identify and attack tumors based on their genetic make-up; immunotherapy to help your body fight off cancer; and improved chemotherapy, radiation and surgery techniques.
“Get a second opinion.”
Because the field is changing so fast, it’s important to get a second opinion at a major medical center or a university hospital. Your community physician “can be excellent but may not know about the latest approved drugs because they are so new,” says Dr. Carbone. Also, he says, get your second opinion before you start treatment. Otherwise, it may be too late to go back and try another, more optimal approach.
“Be patient. The right diagnosis can take time.”
Antoinette Wozniak, MD, says often patients want to hurry up and fight their lung cancer as soon as it’s diagnosed. But, she says, “the most important thing is that the cancer be staged properly” to see if and how much it has spread, so doctors can figure out the most effective treatment plan. Also, doctors may need to analyze a tumor’s genetic make-up to figure out the best targeted therapy, which can take about two weeks, she says.
“Be wary of supplements.”
“I try to discourage patients taking handfuls of pills from various nutraceutical kinds of vendors,” says Dr. Carbone. Supplements can interfere with medications he prescribes, especially targeted therapies, and can have a higher chance of hurting your healing than helping. He advises consulting with your medical oncologist before taking supplements.
“Your targeted therapy may need changing.”
Pierre Massion, MD, finds great hope in the personalized medications that are geared toward fighting your specific tumor. But, he cautions, lung cancer tumors can mutate and become resistant to your treatment. It’s not uncommon for a targeted therapy to stop working after 8 to 10 months. A patient may then need another biopsy so the tumor’s new characteristics can be identified and targeted with new medication.
“Support from family is incredibly important.”
Lung cancer patients need help from family, friends and other caregivers—don’t be reluctant to reach out and ask for it. “There is a huge amount of stress involved with this diagnosis,” says Dr. Carbone. The symptoms, procedures and treatments can all add up to a challenging mix that is “very difficult to handle on your own.” Support groups also can help (your doctor or medical center may help you find one in your area).
“Take part in clinical trials.”
The idea that if you do a trial you might wind up with just a placebo is “a misconception,” says Dr. Wozniak. “Placebo trials are very rare.” Instead, clinical trials offer you the chance to get the latest new medications, while advancing the science of lung cancer treatment. “If we don’t have people entering clinical trials, we won’t make progress,” says Dr. Massion. Ask your doctor about trials near you or visit Lungevity.org’s clinical trial finder.
“Non-smokers get lung cancer, too.”
About 10 to 15% of lung cancers are found in people who have never smoked. “If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer,” says Dr. Carbone. Lung cancer in “never-smokers” can be caused by exposure to other carcinogens, such as diesel fumes, asbestos or radon, says Dr. Massion. Genetic factors could also be involved.
“Everybody should stop smoking.”
Tobacco smoking is responsible for 85 to 90% of lung cancers. Getting everyone to quit smoking would make a huge dent in the number of people dying from the disease. “The focus of healthcare institutions should be around preventing smoking,” says Dr. Massion. It’s also important for smokers with lung cancer to quit, which helps their treatment and prevents recurrence, and for people not to smoke around them.
“Screening could save your life.”
Too often, lung cancer is found only after it has spread. If patients catch lung cancer in its early stages, survival rates improve significantly. Lung cancer screening done with spiral CT is available and is recommended to people ages 50 to 80 who have a 20-year history of smoking a pack or more per day (even if you’ve quit within the last 15 years). The screening is free under the Affordable Care Act. “If you are eligible for CT screening, you should be screened,” says Dr. Carbone.