When it comes to lung cancer, there’s good reason to celebrate. While it’s still the number one cancer killer among both men and women, survival rates for this once seemingly unstoppable cancer have been steadily improving in recent years. In fact, the five-year survival rate is now around 23 percent compared with about 13 percent five years ago.
“Though lung cancer is still a major public health burden in the United States and around the world, substantial progress has been made over the last several decades in terms of early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship,” says Matthew Schabath, PhD, an associate member in the departments of cancer epidemiology and thoracic oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. He adds that these statistics are encouraging and probably due to a variety of factors.
The promising survival statistics are likely due to many different factors, says Schabath. Some possible causes for the lower death rates include:
- Game-Changing Treatment Options In the past, all patients with lung cancer received a chemotherapy regimen that rarely cured the disease. But advancements in medical therapies, especially the use of targeted drugs (medication that targets specific gene mutations involved in triggering cancer growth) and immunotherapies (treatments that help the body’s immune system attack cancer cells), have led to increased survival rates. “These treatments are likely the major contributor to overall improvement in lung cancer survival rates,” says Schabath.
- Fewer Smokers Smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, but rates have been declining in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cigarette smoking among U.S. adults reached an all-time low of 13.7 percent in 2018, possibly due to educational campaigns that outline potential health hazards and restrictions on smoking in public places. Additionally, in 2010, most health insurance and Medicaid plans were required to cover smoking cessation programs.
- Earlier Detection Lung cancer has historically been difficult to treat because it’s often diagnosed at an advanced stage. Recently, newer technologies and updated screening guidelines have allowed doctors to detect lung cancer before symptoms show up. “Lung cancer screening by low-dose CT scans is identifying lung cancer in earlier stages, which are associated with better survival rates and have a better possibility of a surgical cure,” says Schabath.
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How to Keep the Trend Going (Hint—It’s Never Too Late to Quit Smoking)
Schabath says the positive survival trend among lung cancer patients can be maintained with lifestyle changes, better screening, and prompt medical care.
High-risk individuals should receive a yearly CT scan to look for any unusual lesions. “It’s fast, painless, and is covered by Medicare and by most healthcare plans,” says Schabath. The US Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends screening for people between the ages of 50 and 80 with a history of 20 pack years of smoking (a pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years) and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. Early stage lung cancer, such as stage 1 cancer, is treatable by surgery alone.
Adopting a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and plenty of physical activity can also contribute to positive survival trends, and, most important, avoiding tobacco products.
“The best way to beat cancer is to not get cancer,” says Schabath. “To not start smoking or quit smoking as soon as possible will dramatically decrease your risk of getting cancer. Importantly, it is never too late to quit smoking. There is a dramatic risk reduction benefit to quitting, and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve smoked or your age.”
It’s also important that you see your doctor right away if you notice any symptoms of lung cancer, which may include:
- A persistent cough that worsens or doesn’t go away
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Coughing up blood
- Chest pain
- Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia
- Unexplained weight loss
New Survivorship Goals: More Work to Do
While the lung cancer survival rate data is encouraging, experts say there’s still more work to be done. Survival rates from lung cancer lag behind other types of cancer. And?people of color have a worse prognosis than white Americans because they’re less likely to be diagnosed early and receive appropriate treatments.
The International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC), along with several other organizations, has been working toward an ultimate goal to one day eliminate lung cancer as a cause of death. To accelerate this objective, the IASLC wants to double the five-year survival in lung cancer patients by the year 2025.
The organization’s lofty plan to improve survival rates involves “establishing early diagnosis through broader screening guidelines, developing more innovative medicines, and ensuring the best quality of care and support for patients and families.”
Though there’s room for improvement, lung cancer patients today have a better chance for survival than at any time in history. “A lung cancer diagnosis is a scary thing, but the treatment options today compared to just 10 years ago give patients a fighting chance,” says Schabath.