Ryan Gentzler, MD, specializes in thoracic oncology at UVA and is part of the multidisciplinary lung cancer team at UVA Cancer Center. In this post, Gentzler debunks common myths about lung cancer in support of Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
Lung Cancer: Get The Facts
1) All patients who get lung cancer are smokers.
False! Although the majority of lung cancers are caused by smoking tobacco, at least 20 percent of patients with lung cancer have never smoked, which accounts for approximately 20,000 to 30,000 lung cancer cases a year. In fact, there are more deaths from non-smoking related lung cancer than there are many other cancers, such as acute leukemias, melanoma, kidney cancer, uterine cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma.
Additionally, smoking-related lung cancers mainly occur in patients who had previously quit smoking. Other risk factors for lung cancer include a family history of the disease and exposure to certain hazardous materials and fumes, such as asbestos and radon.
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2) Chemotherapy for lung cancer negatively impacts quality of life.
False! Multiple studies have shown that chemotherapy for patients with advanced lung cancer improves quality of life and even extends life in many cases. Although there are side effects with chemotherapy, they are manageable in most cases and are more favorable than the symptoms and effects of untreated lung cancer, which can cause worsening shortness of breath, fatigue and pain.
3) Patients who undergo chemotherapy for lung cancer always lose their hair.
False! Treatment for lung cancer has advanced tremendously in the last 10 to 20 years, resulting in many chemotherapy options that don’t cause hair loss. Additionally, some lung cancers with certain genetic characteristics can be treated with targeted therapy that is given in the form of a pill, which has fewer side effects in general than most chemotherapy treatments.
4) A lot of money has been dedicated to lung cancer research, but there hasn’t been much progress.
False! Patients with advanced-stage lung cancer are living longer now than ever before. Five-year survival rates for lung cancer are up 50 percent compared to 30-40 years ago.
In 2015, the FDA approved two new immunotherapy drugs after several years of clinical trials. These drugs, approved for non-small cell lung cancers, have significantly improved survival rates.
For patients with earlier stage disease, advances such as minimally invasive surgery and modern radiation therapy techniques, have been developed. These reduce side effects and shorten recovery time.
Additionally, patients who are considered to be at-risk for lung cancer now have the option to undergo screening, allowing for earlier detection and diagnosis. The sooner lung cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. We expect to see an improvement in cure rates for lung cancer over time, as we have seen with mammograms for breast cancer and colonoscopies for colon cancer.
5) If I have lung cancer, I need to consider traveling outside Virginia to find the latest treatments and clinical trials.
False! UVA Cancer Center has 12 open clinical trials for patients with various types of lung cancer, of which 9 are treatment trials. Additional trials will be open for enrollment in coming months and throughout 2016.
The multidisciplinary team of lung cancer physicians at UVA Cancer Center is actively engaged with UVA scientists in ongoing research efforts with the goal of bringing new treatments to the bedside. A top research priority is to improve patient response to immunotherapy by combining it with chemotherapy and other agents.
Learn more about UVA’s lung cancer clinical trials.