Lung Cancer Treatment Advancements
- It was 20 years ago today that The Beatles’ George Harrison died after a battle with lung cancer at 58 years old.
- Lung cancer is the second most common cancer, and it’s the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women.
- A class of cancer drugs that harness the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells — immunotherapy — has taken center stage as one of the most promising options available in lung cancer treatment.
Twenty years ago today, Harrison died after a hard-fought battle with non-small cell lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. He was 58 years old.Read More
After The Beatles split in 1970, George Harrison released his first solo album, entitled All Things Must Pass, later that same year. Last year marked 50 years since the album’s release, which prompted the release of All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary Uber Deluxe Edition. The newest release was just nominated for a Grammy — in the best boxed or special limited edition package category.
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A large part of Harrison’s legacy is obviously The Beatles. And over the Thanksgiving holiday, a three-part docu-series, entitled The Beatles: Get Back, was released on Disney+. The series features hours of in-studio footage with the band, including Harrison, that was shot in early 1969 for the 1970 feature film Let It Be.
He was known as “the quiet Beatle,” (he was also the youngest) but ultimately became one of the most popular after the band broke up, and for good reason. Like each of the four Beatles, Harrison went on to have an extremely successful solo career, releasing 12 studio albums before his untimely death in 2001. He even formed the British-American rock and roll supergroup the Traveling Wilburys alongside other big names in music such as Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.
“He wrote brilliantly original songs and played the greatest slide guitar,” fellow Traveling Wilburys bandmate Lynne previously told NBC News. “Working with George was the greatest opportunity of my life, really. The greatest opportunity I could have wished for.”
As George’s son, Dhani Harrison, also told NBC News: “My dad was ahead of his time.”
Side note: The Beatles have been my favorite band since I was in the sixth grade, so I jumped at the opportunity to write this piece, especially since George Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle. And it’s for all the reasons mentioned above: He was a brilliant songwriter with a heart of gold. (I mean, really, the guy was almost too nice. In 1979, he played at Eric Clapton’s wedding to Pattie Boyd — George Harrison’s ex-wife who inspired the song Something. Who does that??)
George Harrison’s Cancer Battles
In 1997, Harrison received his first cancer diagnosis — throat cancer — as he had discovered a lump on his neck that turned out to be cancerous. He went through radiotherapy, also known as radiation therapy, which was said to have been successful at treating his cancer.
For years, he was an avid smoker, and publicly blamed his diagnosis on the habit. “I got it purely from smoking,” George Harrison said at the time. “I gave up cigarettes many years ago, but had started again for a while and then stopped in 1997. Luckily for me they found that this nodule was more of a warning than anything else. It reminds you that anything can happen.”
According to the American Cancer Society, tobacco use is the most important risk factor for head and neck cancers. Harrison didn’t die of throat cancer; his life was ultimately ended after a battle with lung cancer — another cancer also largely caused by smoking. In fact, smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
The tobacco in cigarettes is a carcinogen that causes mutations in lung cells and enables the growth of cancer. In fact, about 80% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking, according to ACS. And several thousand other lung cancer deaths are caused by exposure to secondhand smoke. But the good news is that if you quit smoking, your risk for lung cancer decreases.
“If you’re smoking, don’t smoke,” Dr. Joseph Friedberg, head of thoracic surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, tells SurvivorNet. “You never return down all the way to the (level of) the person who never smoked as far as your risk of lung cancer goes, but it goes down with time.”
Harrison’s bouts with cancer didn’t end there. In May 2001, Harrison traveled to the U.S. for surgery to remove a cancerous growth from one of his lungs after he was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.
“The operation was successful and George has made an excellent recovery,” his wife, Olivia, said at the time. “He is in the best of spirits and on top form — the most relaxed and free since the attack on him since 1999.” (In December 1999, Harrison survived a near-death experience when a man broke into his home and repeatedly stabbed him. He was saved by his wife, Olivia, who fought off the attacker.)
But in November 2001, it became clear that the cancer was still in his body, and he began radiation therapy at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City; the lung cancer had spread to his brain. George Harrison passed away later that month. Olivia and their son, Dhani, were with him when he died at the home of Gavin De Becker, a longtime friend, according to The New York Times.
Lung Cancer Treatment Advancements
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer, and it’s the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women. In fact, according to ACS, lung cancer accounts for nearly 25% of all cancer deaths. But despite these statistics, there have been incredible advances in treatment over the years, whether the disease is found in early or late stages.
A class of cancer drugs that harness the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells — immunotherapy — has taken center stage as one of the most promising options available in lung cancer treatment. It has shown promise in treating some, but not all, types of non-small cell lung cancer, the type Harrison was diagnosed with. Non-small cell lung cancer is one of the most common forms of the disease and affects both smokers and non-smokers.
Much of a patient’s treatment can depend on the characteristics of their tumor, and whether there are genetic mutations. If a patient holds the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) — which, when overreactive, makes cancer cells grow and divide — targeted therapies slow cancer cells from dividing. This is sometimes also referred to as precision medicine, which can match treatment to the specific tumor and its mutations in order to yield the best results.
Dr. Raja Flores, chairman of the Department of Thoracic Surgery for the Mount Sinai Health System, tells SurvivorNet that there are people walking around who have had their lung cancer spread, or metastasize, to their brain, like Harrison. This is stage 4 lung cancer. But, Dr. Flores adds, stage 4 “does not mean death.”
“First and foremost, you have to make sure that they understand (lung cancer) is not a death sentence,” he says. And that’s all thanks to treatment advancements.
Contributing: Shelby Black