Looking Into the Major Advances in Lung Cancer Treatment
- On Tuesday, George Harrison’s wife took to Instagram to mourn the loss of the Beatles legend, 21 years after he passed from lung cancer.
- Harrison passed away in 2001 after a long battle with cancer.
- In the 20+ years since the tragic loss of the legendary musician, there have been great advances when it comes to treating lung cancer — even advanced disease.
- Newer treatments, like immunotherapy and targeted agents, can dramatically improve the length and quality of life for patients.
Harrison passed away after a long battle with cancer on November 29, 2001. He was first diagnosed with throat cancer back in 1997. He underwent treatment and was given a clean bill of health in 1998, but the cancer later returned and the musician had to begin treatment for non-small cell lung cancer.Read More
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In May 2001, Harrison underwent an operation to remove a cancerous growth. However, just a few months later, he had to begin radiotherapy because the lung cancer had spread to his brain.
The tragic loss of one of the “Fab Four” shocked fans all over the world. In the 21 years since his passing, there have been many major advances when it comes to treating lung cancer — even advanced disease.
Why is lung cancer so hard to treat?
Lung cancer can be particularly difficult to treat because often, symptoms don’t show up until the cancer has spread to other organs. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the type Harrison had, is the most common type of lung cancer and makes up about 85% of cases. Lung cancer is often detected when a patient is undergoing testing for something else.
Dr. Brendon Stiles explains who should be screened for lung cancer.
However, professionals in the field stress the importance of screening for people who may be at particular risk, including:
- Current of former heavy smokers (who smoked a minimum of 20 pack years)
- Current smokers or those who quit within the last 15 years
- People between the ages of 50 and 80 years old
The reason lung cancer can be so deadly is that it’s often caught at a late stage, when it’s more difficult to treat. When doctors can catch this cancer at an early stage, survival vastly improves.
Lung cancer treatment advances
In recent years, there have been improvements in surgical techniques and radiation delivery that have improved outcomes and decreased side effects for people with lung cancer. Newer treatments — like immunotherapy and targeted agents — are also dramatically improving the length and quality of life for people who are diagnosed with lung cancer.
Treatment varies depending on which type and stage of cancer you have. If the cancer is local — meaning just in the lungs — surgery may be an option. But if it has spread to the lymph nodes, a combination of radiation with chemotherapy, followed by immunotherapy, may be the best option. Once the cancer has spread outside of the lungs, chemotherapy and/or targeted drugs are used to control its growth as much as possible.
Immunotherapy, which involves rallying a patient’s own immune system to recognize and attack cancer, has really changed the game when it comes to treating several cancers, and has shown promise in lung cancer as well.
Dr. Jim Allison, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Chair of the Department of Immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview that the next big wave of research of ways to treat cancer is likely to involve combining immunotherapy with targeted drugs.
“Immunotherapy is rather unique in that for the first time, we’re getting truly curative therapies in many kinds of disease — not just in melanoma but in lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Merkel cell cancer, head and neck cancer,” he explained. “It goes on and on — so it works in many different kinds of cancers. Some it doesn’t work in … it doesn’t work yet in. That’s a big challenge that we’re beginning to work on.
“But there’s never been a class of drugs that’s worked … at this level and then also offered the possibility for combinations,” he added.
Another pioneer in the field of immunotherapy, Dr. Steven Rosenberg, Chief of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute who did major work in immunotherapy beginning in the late 1970s, said that immunotherapy is gaining traction lately as a viable, effective addition to other cancer treatments.
“In the last several years, there’s been an explosion of information that enables us to help larger numbers of patients by getting their body’s immune system to fight this disease,” he explained in a previous interview with SurvivorNet.
Immunotherapy may not be an option for all patients with lung cancer, but it is something worth discussing with your doctor and/or treatment team. Patients with certain biomarkers, which are changes in cancer cells, may be better candidates for this type of treatment. In lung cancer, there are two sets of biomarkers: driver mutations and PDL1. Read more about advanced disease here.