If he had survived his 2005 lung cancer diagnosis, Peter Jennings, the distinguished ABC news anchor, would be 83 today. Since then, advances in treating the disease may have improved his chance of survival.Read More
“Yes, I was a smoker until about 20 years ago,” he said, answering the question on viewers’ minds. “And I was weak and I smoked over 9/11. But whatever the reason the news does slow you down a bit.”
Jennings announced his lung cancer diagnosis to viewers on April 5, 2005.
He closed with a wink at a concern shared by the cancer community: “Finally, I wonder if other men and women ask their doctors, right away, ‘Okay Doc? When does the hair go?”
The Peter Jennings Effect
Four months later on August 7, 2005, Jennings died at age 67, leaving much of America shaken by his loss.
His death sparked a surge of interest in stop-smoking programs, with ABC reporting that the national toll-free number, 1-800-QUITNOW, saw an increase from 200,000 callers in 2005 to 500,000 callers in 2009. The CDC reports that 23 percent of high school students smoked at the time of Jennings’ diagnosis. Four years later, it had dropped to 19.5 percent and, by 2019, it was down to 5.8 percent.
But the truth is, if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. About 20 percent of Americans who die of lung cancer (30,000 people) have never smoked or used any kind of tobacco, according to the American Cancer Society.
Lung Cancer: Many Never Smoked
Although lung cancer is projected to kill 155,000 Americans this year, “it’s a common misconception that it’s only a disease of individuals who smoke,” said Dr. Bernardo Goulart, a physician-scientist with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Many patients and even many physicians don’t even think about it when there’s no smoking history, even when there are obvious symptoms like weight loss or coughing up blood.”
Radon gas, the leading cause of the disease in nonsmokers, accounts for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Secondhand smoke kills around 7,000 more. Asbestos, diesel exhaust, soot, previous radiation therapy, and air pollution can also drive the disease, as can certain genetic mutations, according to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Advances in Late-Stage Treatment
“Immunotherapy has been a game-changer for lung cancer, and now its use is being expanded to people with earlier stages of the disease,” Dr. Brendon Stiles, a thoracic surgeon at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian in New York, told SurvivorNet. “It’s amazing to me now that you can have stage four lung cancer and actually not even need chemotherapy,” he notes.
Immunotherapy harnesses the power of a person’s own immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. “What people are most excited about is, over the long-term, people are at least raising the question: Can we see cures with immunotherapy and lung cancer?” Dr. Stiles notes.
Dr. Brendan Stiles of Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian spoke with SurvivorNet about how immunotherapy has changed the game for lung cancer.
While immunotherapy research has been focused on advanced cancers, the hope is that, eventually, it can be used when treating patients with early-stage disease, after surgery, chemo, or a combination of the two. “That’s really going to lead to survivors of this disease,” Dr. Stiles said.
The number of people able to benefit from immunotherapy drugs like checkpoint inhibitors, which empower the body’s immune system to fight off its own cancer, has been increasing at a rapid pace that some have lauded as a “revolution” in cancer treatment.
Dr. Geoffrey Oxnard of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute spoke with SurvivorNet about how checkpoint inhibitor drugs work.
In 2011, only one percent of patients with cancer were eligible to receive checkpoint inhibitors. Today, that number has climbed to 43 percent. (With 12 percent of those people treated actually seeing their cancers respond).
How do checkpoint inhibitors work? When markers found on cancer cells bind with other markers found on immune T-cells, they signal the immune system not to attack. “If we block that signal, the immune system wakes up, sees the cancer, and attacks,” Dr. Geoffrey Oxnard, a thoracic oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute told SurvivorNet.
Checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy drugs do exactly that: they block the “don’t attack” signal.
The Misunderstood Cancer
Still, in spite of these advances, lung cancer misconceptions persist. And, although it kills more men and women than any other cancer, funding for new lung cancer therapies lags behind other cancers, often because of the negative association with smoking. Ironically, the doctors who treat lung cancer are also among the most compassionate on this subject:
“Many societal, cultural, and economic factors influence an individual’s decision to smoke,” says Dr. Goulart of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “And the addictive properties of tobacco make it difficult for them to quit after they start. Most people interpret lung cancer as self-inflicted when in reality, it’s not. The decision to smoke is not an individual decision.”
Most people don’t know there’s an effective screening test for lung cancer. An LDCT (“low-dose helical computed tomography”) scan is similar to an x-ray . To get one, you lie on your back for about 30 seconds beneath a donut-shaped scanner.
And many assume a diagnosis is a death sentence. Not so, says Dr. Goulart, “Many assume that lung cancer is incurable by definition, when in reality there is a good chance we can cure it with appropriate treatment.”
Even with stage 4 disease, Goulart notes there are life-extending treatments that “increase survival and improve the symptoms of the disease.”
Don’t Be Ashamed To Check Symptoms
Lung cancer patients are often diagnosed late, after the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Some people feel shame and guilt about smoking so they don’t go to a doctor when they first notice symptoms. Other times, symptoms may not appear until the disease is advanced. What should you watch for?
- A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse
- Chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply, cough or laugh
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired or weak
- Infections like bronchitis or pneumonia that won’t go away or keep coming back
- Coughing up blood
- Weight loss and loss of appetite