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Lung Cancer Patients Are Living Longer. Find Out Why

Posted December 12, 2022 by Chelsea Kennedy-Snodgrass, D.O.

Woman in a striped shirt getting checked by a nurse

Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in both males and females in the United States, and according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), is the leading cause of cancer deaths, making up almost 25% of cases.

While smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, nonsmokers can be diagnosed with cancer as well. Exposure to radon, asbestos, and secondhand smoke are some of the other risk factors that can increase your risk of developing lung cancer.

The good news is that these statistics are changing and the outlook for patients diagnosed with lung cancer is better than ever. People are living longer with non-small cell lung cancer, which is the most common form and makes up nearly 85% of cases.

In fact, the overall rate of people dying from lung cancer has decreased 56% from 1990 to 2019 in males, and 32% from 2002 to 2019 in females, according to the ACS. The number of deaths from lung cancer continues to decline each year due to updated screening guidelines, detection of lung cancer at earlier stages, and advancements in treatment.

Additionally, the number of new lung cancer cases is decreasing in part because people are quitting smoking.

Updated screening guidelines for earlier detection

Early detection is critical for improved patient outcomes. The five-year survival rate for advanced lung cancer is 8% versus 64% for early stage lung cancer, according to the ACS.

Thanks to recently expanded screening guidelines, lung cancer is being caught earlier before the cancer has a chance to grow and spread, providing more options for treatment. The United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends a low-dose chest CT scan annually for anyone between the ages of 50 and 80 years old who have smoked at least 20 pack years, and who currently smoke or who have quit in the past 15 years. A pack year is the equivalent of smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for one year. Your pack years can be calculated using the following formula:

Average number of packs smoked per day x number of years smoked = Pack years

A low-dose chest CT scan, which takes less than 10 seconds and doesn’t require any drugs or needles, produces a 3D image of the lungs. It is one of the most effective ways to detect early-stage lung cancer for high-risk patients.

Advances in lung cancer treatment

Innovations in surgical procedures and advances in chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs are improving patient outcomes.

As opposed to a traditional thoracotomy, more and more patients are having video-assisted thoracic surgery to treat early-stage lung cancers. This procedure requires smaller incisions, so patients typically experience shorter recovery times and fewer complications.

Robotic-assisted thoracic surgery is another minimally invasive option that uses instruments that have a greater range of motion and are more precise which improves results, shortens recovery time and reduces pain for lung cancer patients.

Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration has recently approved several new targeted and immunotherapy drugs for advanced lung cancer that have led to increased survival rates.

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs designed to precisely identify and attack certain cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. The drugs work by zeroing in on some of the proteins that make cancer cells different from normal cells and can block messages that make cancer cells grow.

Immunotherapy uses drugs to help boost a person’s own immune system so it works harder to recognize and attack cancer cells to stop or slow cancer growth.

Fewer smokers

Smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, but the current rate of adults who smoke in this country continues to decline. Smoking has decreased from 20.9% in 2005 to 12.5% in 2020, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

A main reason for the decline is that people are more aware today about the dangers of smoking. For decades, educational campaigns run by the government and national organizations have promoted the health hazards of tobacco use. In addition, many smoking cessation programs are available today through government agencies and health insurers, not to mention the many restrictions on smoking in public places.

What’s more, when there are fewer people smoking, there’s less exposure to secondhand smoke, which is also a risk factor for lung cancer.

If you’re at high risk for lung cancer, screening is vital to catching it early. Contact Summa Health today to schedule your low-dose CT lung screening at 330.319.6900.


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