Public health and scientific advances start to chip away at lung cancer

January 26, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

Lung cancer continues to lead all other cancers as a cause of death in the U.S., but recent data and research findings provided a glimmer of optimism.

Photo of Karen Reckamp Karen Reckamp

Fewer people are dying from the disease than in previous years, according to a recent American Cancer Society report. The report cited cigarette smoking as the most important risk factor for lung cancer, and public health efforts to reduce the smoking habit seem to be working.

“We continue to make progress in lung cancer with death rates decreasing in both men and women due largely to a reduction in smoking of tobacco,” said City of Hope’s Karen Reckamp, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, who specializes in lung cancer treatment and research.

The incidence of lung cancer declined in men for the past 20 years, but was increasing among women until only recently. Lung cancer incidence in women decreased by 0.3 percent per year between 2004 and 2008.

Reckamp notes that alongside the reduction in cigarette smoking, medical research into improved cancer treatments also was a major factor in the drop in death rates. “For patients with advanced disease, we understand the biology of lung cancer better than ever and have targeted therapies that significantly improve outcomes for patients,” she said.

Scientists at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) lung cancer meeting in San Diego earlier this month offered news about the latest advances in lung cancer research.

Some studies of interest at the AACR meeting:

  • Scientists looked at people with lung cancer who had never or rarely smoked and identified suspicious genetic changes that are different from those seen in tobacco-associated lung cancers.
  • Analyzing cancerous cells circulating in a patient’s blood may enable physicians to track the growth of a tumor, monitor the effectiveness of treatment and help identify the most effective treatment for individual patients.
  • Researchers are working to identify and characterize genetic changes that occur in specific lung cells that can potentially provide a way to screen for lung cancer and diagnose the disease at earlier, more treatable stages.

“We have entered into an era where screening for lung cancer in high-risk individuals can improve survival,” Reckamp added, citing studies under way looking at testing in older smokers, those with previous tumors and people with chronic lung disease.

 

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 226,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year, and more than 160,000 patients will die from the disease. The five-year survival rate for lung cancers is 52 percent for early stage cancers when the tumor is still localized. Only 15 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed at this stage.

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