Dare We Say the "C" Word at the Same Time as Lung Cancer?

When I was diagnosed with lung cancer, the chances that a late-stage lung cancer patient would live five years was merely 4%. In fact, the American Lung Association, even today, gives the following survival rates:

"The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 55 percent for cases detected when the disease is still localized (within the lungs). However, only 16 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. For distant tumors (spread to other organs) the five-year survival rate is only 4 percent."1

No wonder we rejoice as we pass various cancerversaries as we make our toward that five-year milestone!! All too often we have to say goodbye to our friends for whom treatments did not work.

Times are changing

It is a frustration for me that the funding for lung cancer research is so dismal compared to other cancers and diseases. That frustration is borne out of the sorrow we all feel when we read that another one of our friends has passed away from this insidious disease.

But, times, they are a'changin'. I believe that if I had been diagnosed seven years ago instead of five and a half years ago, I would have suffered the same fate as my dad did. He was diagnosed in 1976 with the same cancer I have and died six months later in February 1977.

The future of treatment: immunotherapy

Scientists are making great progress and it has helped a lot of us stay alive far past the time that we would have if we were diagnosed a decade ago. This week reports are coming out of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting that offer great hope to those of us with lung cancer. Dr. Roy Herbst, a lung cancer specialist at Yale Cancer Center, said in an interview, "Immunotherapy has the ability, in my opinion, to cure lung cancer." Cure?? Lung cancer???

Dr. John Heymach, chair of the lung cancer division at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is quoted in an NBC News article as saying,

"Just a few years ago it was rare for patients with advanced lung cancer to live past two years. Now it is becoming more common to live past that point even with advanced lung cancer. Advanced lung cancer is no longer a death sentence for these patients."2

Much of the hope is placed on a relatively new class of drugs called immunotherapy. Immunotherapy works by supercharging a patient's own immune system and allows it to recognize cancer as an invader. According to Dr. Herbst, immunotherapy works much like a PacMan running around the body "eating" tumor cells that get in its way.2

Finding new hope

I entered a clinical trial almost five years ago for a drug that turned out to be nivolumab, aka Opdivo. I was without much hope when I got into the trial. That all changed quickly. From the beginning, my tumors became stable. And, they stayed stable for four years. I had radiation on the one tumor that outsmarted the immunotherapy and then continued with my Opdivo treatments.

In addition to the fact that the Opdivo keeps my tumors under control, I have suffered very few side effects from the treatment. I have been able to continue living my life, almost as if I didn't have cancer.

According to numerous news releases this week, there is much reason to be optimistic about the progress being made in the fight against lung cancer. It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that's GREAT news for all of us who are living with and fighting against lung cancer. It can't happen soon enough!

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