Lung cancer is the most common form of cancer worldwide, with an incidence rate that exceeds that of breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. Traditionally, the rare small-cell lung cancer is treated with chemotherapy, but the far more common large-cell lung cancer requires invasive surgical treatment, typically without the adjuvant (combined) chemotherapy so common in attacking other cancers. Until recently, oncologists assumed that early stage discovery and the removal of the entire tumour was the only effective way to combat the disease.
The current major shift in lung cancer treatment was prompted by the results of several large, comprehensive studies, one of which was published this past week in the New England Journal of Medicine. These studies conclusively demonstrate that the survival rates of post-operative patients receiving a new cocktail of chemotherapy increased by a significant margin. One of the studies, led by Dr. Timothy Winton of the University of Alberta, showed that 69 per cent of patients with the combined surgery/chemotherapy treatment were alive after five years, compared to 54 per cent who underwent surgery without the supplementary drug therapy. Those patients who received chemo had a life expectancy of 94 months after the procedure, while those without it lived almost two years less. In the field of lung cancer treatment, where success is typically measured in increments of two or three months, this is, in the words of the experts, 'astonishing' and 'entirely unprecedented.'
Close to 85 per cent of those suffering from lung cancer are potential candidates for this new treatment. Most of the credit goes to a doublet (combination) of the drugs cisplatin and the relatively new vinorelbine. They perform a 'collective attack' on the two forms of cell division most common in lung cancer, halting the further spread of the disease by killing cancer cells missed during the surgery. This also means that less invasive surgery can be performed, decreasing recovery times and the pain associated with large-scale lung procedures.
Despite its high incidence rate, lung cancer is almost always entirely preventable. The vast majority of patients are smokers or ex-smokers. Typical symptoms include the onset of a worsening smokers cough, the appearance of blood after coughing, shortness of breath and chest pains. Early stage detection is critical in fighting the disease, so elderly patients with these symptoms should be sure to see their doctor.
There is finally some good news with regard to lung cancer treatment, and these innovations promise to significantly increase survival rates. Lung cancer surgery and chemotherapy will once again be performed in tandem.