As doctors, Gaurav Kumar and Masood Ghouse are on the front lines of the war against lung cancer.
Although many patients win their battles with cancer each day, many more lose them. Last year, alone, more than 160,000 died from lung cancer—making it the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States.
It's an uphill battle, says Ghouse, a Porter Regional Hospital oncologist who says it can be frustrating to see funding dollars and publicity focused on other cancers, even though lung cancer causes more deaths than the next three most common cancers combined (colon, breast and prostate).
"A lot of people blame the victim," he says, noting smoking is thought to cause up to 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer cases. "There should be a stronger push for more funding and awareness so we can have more research. We need to make advancements and have better control over this in the future."
A new clinical strategy for lung cancer, however, has shown promise—identifying the presence of cancer in someone who has not demonstrated any symptoms.
About two years ago, the National Cancer Institute released results from a clinical trial in which at-risk smokers were screened with either a low dose computed tomography (CT) or standard chest x-ray. The study found that screening individuals with low dose CT scans could reduce lung cancer mortality by 20 percent compared to a chest x-ray.
Over the past year, organizations like the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society, have recommended low-dose CT screening for those who are at the highest risk—those who are current or former smokers aged 55 to 74 and who have a smoking history of at least 30 pack years, meaning a person smoked one pack a day for 30 years, two packs a day for 15 years and so on.
These findings were significant, Kumar says, because by the time a patient displays symptoms of lung cancer, the disease has likely progressed or spread.
"A lot more people used to die before the cancer would even be diagnosed," says Kumar, who is on staff at St. Mary Medical Center. "We're catching more cases now. I think our ability to catch and identify cancer is improving, and in time, in the next five to 10 years, we may see a decline in lung cancer incidents."
Several hospitals and specialist offices offer these low-dose CT scans—often for less than $100. It's a small price to pay to potentially save one's life, and may be covered by insurance companies, Ghouse says. He recommends starting first with a family physician, who can then refer the patient to a hospital that offers the service.
"More insurance companies are agreeing to pay for it because it catches cancer early," he says.
Other technology advances in the region are helping physicians catch lung cancer early, something doctors say will help patients live longer and have a better quality of life during treatment.
Now, specialists are able to minimize radiation exposure to other parts of the body and provide local radiation only to the tumor site.
Researchers also are developing ways to provide more individualized treatment for lung cancer.
"We can run the genetics on the cells and look for specific mutations," Kumar says. "Then based on those mutations, we can provide individualized care of therapy—providing specific drugs that will work better with those mutations."
Currently, survival rates for lung cancer vary depending on the type of cancer and how early it is diagnosed, but overall, the 5-year survival rate is just 15 percent.
Ghouse says he hopes these new innovations, along with several other drug therapies currently being developed, will extend the survival rate for those diagnosed with lung cancer, Ghouse says.
"I think in the next four to five years, the way we approach lung cancer will be more advanced," he says.