Five Truths About Lung Cancer

While other kinds of cancer may receive more public attention, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths. There are two main types of lung cancer: small cell carcinoma and non-small cell carcinoma, both of which mainly affect people over 45 years old.

We spoke with Bruce E. Johnson, MD about causes and treatment options.

1.  Smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer. It is the cause in most cases, but 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer patients are non-smokers.

Women account for two-thirds of lung cancers in non-smokers, and 20 percent of lung cancers in women affect women who never smoked. It is often impossible to identify an environmental exposure that explains the development of lung cancer.

Bruce Johnson, MD, is director of Dana-Farber’s Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology.

2.  It’s never too late to quit smoking.

If you currently smoke and decide to quit now, within weeks to months you begin to reduce your risks of heart attack and/or of dying from lung cancer. Ten years after quitting, you will have cut your risk of lung cancer death by approximately 75 percent compared to someone who continued to smoke.

3.  CT screening for early detection can save lives.

Screening high-risk individuals with low-dose CT scans has been shown to improve lung cancer survival because tumors are more likely to be detected at an early stage. Screening is currently recommended for people who are between the ages of 55 and 74 and who have smoked a pack a day for 30 years and quit less than 15 years ago.

4.  Genetic testing may reveal specific targets in a patient’s tumor that can be attacked with new designer drugs.

Dana-Farber scientists have led the research leading to identification of genetic alterations, or mutations, in individuals’ tumors that aren’t present in healthy tissue. Such mutations – such as EGFR and ALK – make the tumors more likely to respond to certain targeted drugs that can be taken in pill form and have fewer side effects than standard chemotherapy. Dana-Farber physicians test all lung cancer patients for the presence of such mutations, and researchers continue to hunt for additional genetic targets within lung cancers.

5. Therapies exist for all stages and types of lung cancer.

Today, nearly all lung cancer patients are candidates for some form of treatment, thanks to advances over the last decade. We intend to use our understanding of lung cancer biology and supportive therapies to make it a condition that a patient can live with for years, and provide the framework from which we can work toward a cure for this deadly disease.