Learning about Peter Jennings and Lung Cancer
- Peter Jennings, the sole anchor of ABC World News Tonight from 1983 until his death from lung cancer in 2005, covered many pivotal events in history during that time. As we look back on his legacy, it’s hopeful to see the progress we’ve made it treating the disease that took his life.
- Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer and it can develop in both smokers and non-smokers, but people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who don’t smoke.
- There has been lots of progress within the world of lung cancer treatment – specifically when it comes to immunotherapy. One of our experts says “it’s really changed the face of lung cancer, just like targeted therapies.”
- Talk to your doctor about getting a low-dose CT scan (LDCT) or chest x-ray if you are at high risk or if you experience a cough that doesn’t go away, a cough that produces bloody mucus or if you experience chest pain or trouble swallowing or breathing. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults ages 50 to 80 who have a 20 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years should be screened.
The United States lost one of its leading broad journalists on August 7, 2005, when Jennings was just 67 years old. He would have been 84 this year, and likely still doing what he loved if he could.
Peter Jennings’ Legendary CareerRead More
In fact, The New York Times referred to him as “a high school dropout from Canada who transformed himself into one of the most urbane, well-traveled and recognizable journalists on American television.”
Jennings first joined ABC News on Aug. 3, 1964, and held various roles within the network until his death in 2005. During that time, he traveled far and wide to cover some of the some influential events of the world.
“He was in Berlin in the 1960s when the Berlin Wall was going up, and there in the ’90s when it came down,” reads his ABC biography. “And he was in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania and throughout the Soviet Union to record first the repression of communism and then its demise.”
His home network also states that he managed to report from all 50 states covering everything from the civil right movement in the southern United States during the 1960s to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Jennings led the network’s coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and America’s subsequent war on terrorism,” the biography reads. “He anchored more than 60 hours that week during the network’s longest continuous period of news coverage, and was widely praised for providing a reassuring voice during the time of crisis.”
And once he was name anchor and senior editor of World News Tonight in 1983, he went on to win “almost every major award given to television journalists.”
Sadly, his 20 year run in that role ended early from lung cancer which he first disclosed to the public on April 5, 2005, via a written statement released by ABC followed by his own remarks on World News Tonight later that night.
In a brief scratchy-voiced statement at the end of that night’s program, Jennings told viewers he hoped to return to his anchor desk as his health would allow. Sadly, he never got the chance.
“He established a level of trust with the viewer that would be difficult for anyone else to match going forward,” his contemporary journalist Tom Bettag told The New York Times.
Understanding Peter Jennings’ Type of Cancer: Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer. Diagnosis and treatment of the disease can be tricky since symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer has spread.
An initial symptom, for example, could be as serious as a seizure if the lung cancer has already spread to the brain. But other symptoms can include increased coughing, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, wheezing, losing your voice or persistent infections like bronchitis or pneumonia.
The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell, which makes up 85 percent of cases, and small-cell. These types act differently and, accordingly, require different types of treatment.
Dr. Patrick Forde, a thoracic oncologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells SurvivorNet about how distinguishing between the two types – and their subtypes – can be very beneficial.
“Within that non-small cell category, there’s a subtype called non-squamous adenocarcinoma, and that’s the group of patients for whom genetic testing is very important on the tumor,” he explains. “Genetic testing is looking for mutations in the DNA, in the tumor, which are not present in your normal DNA.”
Declining smoking rates have lead to an improved outlook for lung cancer since cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for the disease. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that cigarette smoking is linked to about 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths, and people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who don’t smoke.
It’s important to remember, however, that even people who’ve never smoked before can still get lung cancer. The CDC reports that, in the United States, about 10 to 20 percent of lung cancers, or 20,000 to 40,000 lung cancers each year, happen in people who’ve never smoked.
“Some lung cancers are from unknown exposure to air pollution, radon, or asbestos,” Dr. Raja Flores, system chair of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai previously told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “We also see more never-smokers with lung cancer who have a family history of it.”
Lung Cancer Treatment Advances
Despite the fact that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women in the United States, there has been lots of progress within the world of lung cancer treatment – specifically when it comes to immunotherapy.
“Immunotherapy is here to stay,” Dr. Brendon Stiles, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical oncology at Montefiore Health System, told SurvivorNet. “And it’s really changed the face of lung cancer, just like targeted therapies.”
Getting even more specific, checkpoint inhibitors and our ability to genetically test for targeted medications have made a huge difference. Checkpoint inhibitors are a class of immunotherapy drugs that specifically target proteins found either on immune or cancer cells to prevent their binding together. In other words, these drugs don’t kill cancer cells directly, but instead stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells while hopefully not affecting other surrounding healthy cells.
“It’s amazing to me now that you can have Stage IV lung cancer and actually not even need chemotherapy,” Dr. Stiles said. “If you have high expression of a protein that we know is targeted by immunotherapy, you may just get immunotherapy alone.”
But how do doctors know if immune checkpoint inhibitors can be used to treat your lung cancer? Through genetic testing.
If you were recently diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), your cancer care team should take the time to talk about PD-L1 testing with you. PD-L1 testing is a laboratory test cancerous tumor tissue is sent to a laboratory for evaluation and analysis in order to helps physicians determine if a patient will likely benefit from immune checkpoint inhibitors.
PD-1, referred to as programmed cell death 1, is a protein that is found on the outer surface of cells in your immune system. PD-L1, referred to as programmed cell death ligand, is on the outer layer of some normal blood cells, as well as some cancer cells. When PD-1 binds to PD-L1, this puts the brakes on the immune system and can prevent immune cells from attacking and killing cells.
Normally, this acts as a braking mechanism to prevent our immune systems from becoming overactive and going somewhat haywire by attacking our normal cells. Cancer cells can take over or override this innate mechanism, preventing cancer cells from dying.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that are designed to blocks proteins called checkpoints that are made by some types of immune system cells. Two important such checkpoint proteins are PD-1 and PD-L1 as well as CTLA4.
“Immune checkpoint inhibitors … these are IV therapies — antibodies — that wake up the immune system,” Dr. Geoffrey Oxnard, a thoracic oncologist at Boston Medical Center, told SurvivorNet. “We are blocking this signal called PD-L1. PD-L1 is a signal that your tumor uses to tell the immune system to go away and ignore it.
“It is a Jedi mind trick, OK? It tells the immune system, ‘Move on. Bye. Ignore me.’ If we block that signal, the immune system wakes up, sees the cancer, and attacks.”
Checkpoint inhibitors for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients include the following:
- Nivolumab (Opdivo)
- Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)
- Cemiplimab (Libtayo)
- Ipilimumab (Yervoy)
In addition, it’s important to remember that there are many targeted therapies out there for patients. And genetic testing can reveal the presence of certain genetic mutations — including KRAS, ALK, EGFR and a number of others — which can help doctors tailor treatment for each person’s specific lung cancer. Oevrall, it’s important that people with lung cancer advocate themselves and ask if targeted therapies and immunotherapies may be right for them.
Lung Cancer Screening
Another way to advocate for yourself is to prioritize appropriate cancer screenings – including lung cancer screenings if appropriate.
Many lung cancers are found accidentally, but screening can help doctors diagnose lung cancers at earlier stages of the disease when successful treatment is more likely. Early-stage lung cancers that are removed with surgery may even be curable. But more often than not, lung cancer diagnoses come after the disease has already spread to other parts of the body making it more difficult to treat.
“In about 70 to 80 percent of patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer, unfortunately the cancer has spread outside of the lung and is not suitable for surgery,” Dr. Forde tells SurvivorNet.
But screening methods such as the low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan can save lives – if those who are at risk participate. This test uses a very small amount of radiation to create highly detailed pictures of your lungs to reveal cancer long before initial symptoms. The State of Lung Cancer 2020 report from the American Lung Association found that screening every currently eligible person would save close to 48,000 lives, but only about 6 percent of Americans who are at high risk are actually getting screened.
“The concern is perhaps patients who are on Medicaid or don’t have insurance will not be referred for appropriate screening,” Dr. Forde says. “I think it behooves us all to try and increase the uptake of CT screening in particular, given that it’s been shown to reduce lung cancer mortality.”
So, Who Should Get Screened?
You should talk to your doctor about getting a low-dose CT scan (LDCT) or chest x-ray if you are at high risk or if you experience a cough that doesn’t go away, a cough that produces bloody mucus or if you experience chest pain or trouble swallowing or breathing.
Nearly 20 percent of people who die from lung cancer in the United States each year have never smoked or used any other form of tobacco, but smoking is a huge risk factor for the disease since the tobacco in cigarettes is a carcinogen that causes mutations in lung cells and enables the growth of cancer. If you quit smoking, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing the disease, but you don’t go all the way down to the level of a non-smoker.
In March 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPST) introduced new guidelines which dropped the age of eligibility for lung cancer screening and the number of “pack years,” or number of years a person smoked an average of one pack of cigarettes a day.
The new guidelines specify that adults ages 50 to 80 who have a 20 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years should be screened. So if someone smoked one pack of cigarettes per day for 20 years, their “pack history” would be 20 years, and they should be screened. But if someone smoked two packs a day for 10 years, they would also have a 20 year “pack history.”
The USPSTF says that expanding screening eligibility will be “especially helpful” to Black people and women and will increase screening access. Data shows that both groups tend to smoke fewer cigarettes than white men. Data also shows that Black people have a higher risk of lung cancer than white people.
Contributing: Dr. Andrea Tufano-Sugarman