Kentucky’s death rate from lung cancer is 46 percent higher than the national rate. Kentucky also has one of the highest smoking rates in the country.
But better screening and advanced new treatments are beginning to move the needle on lung cancer survival. A recent FDA-approved treatment, immunotherapy, helps the human body fight this cancer using the body’s natural defense mechanism: the immune system. Immunotherapy is truly a revolution in caring for patients with lung cancer – a disease with a traditionally poor prognosis.
Recent studies have shown that immunotherapy can improve lung cancer survival rates substantially for patients with lung cancer that is refractory to other standard therapies. Two drugs have been recently approved for the treatment of squamous and non-squamous cell lung cancer, which together make up about 80 percent of all lung cancers.
The body’s immune system protects and kills bacteria, viruses and cancers. But cancer cells are mutated cells that have learned to “hide” from the immune system, making white blood cells unable to recognize cancer cells as outside intruders.
Immunotherapy works by removing the cancer cell’s “cloak,” so that cancer cells become visible to white blood cells and then can be eradicated. In short, immunotherapy enhances the body’s ability to fend off the disease, giving the patient a better chance to beat it.
Immunotherapy drugs are unrelated to traditional chemotherapy and radiation, and unlike many cancer treatments, the toxicity in immunotherapy treatments is mild. Roughly 95 percent of patients tolerate the drugs with minimal side effects. Less than 10 percent of patients experience side effects that disrupt daily life.
Side effects can include autoimmune damage to normal body tissues, but fortunately these are rare. Immunotherapy is currently FDA-approved for the treatment of lung cancer and melanoma, and research is underway to determine its application for a number of other cancers.
Although immunotherapy can help patients survive longer with advanced cancer, early detection is the key to long-term survival. The five-year survival rate for Kentuckians diagnosed at an early stage is nearly 36 percent higher than those diagnosed at a later stage.
Current or former heavy smokers over age 55 are at the highest risk. Low-dose CT screening for lung cancer can help detect earlier stage disease and improve survival. Fortunately, the screenings are covered by Medicare and insurance and often have little or no out-of-pocket expense for patients.
For the 220,000 Americans with lung cancer, advancements in screening and treatment can mean the difference between life and death. We must continue to find new treatment options and ways to diagnose lung cancer at its earliest stages, while also encouraging smoking cessation. Despite advances in screening and treatment, giving up smoking continues to be the most important prevention tool in the fight against lung cancer.
Dr. Jessica Croley is Board Certified in Hematology and Medical Oncology and is with KentuckyOne Health Cancer Care