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Treating Lung Cancer

  Lung cancer is a massive health problem in Kentucky.

  About 3,600 Kentuckians were diagnosed with lung cancer last year. Lung cancer kills more Kentuckians each year than breast, colon, pancreas, and prostate cancers combined, and about one-third of cancer-related deaths in Kentucky last year were due to lung cancer. Kentucky has 1.4 percent of the U.S. population, but 2.3 percent of all lung cancers. In the general population of the United States, lung cancer accounts for 54 of 100,000 deaths; in Kentucky, that number is 83.

  With sobering statistics such as these, some refer to lung cancer as “Kentucky’s disease.”

  The five-year survival rate for the earliest stage of lung cancer, where the cancer is only in the lung, is about 85 percent. When the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate drops to between 50 and 60 percent. At the most advanced stage, when the cancer has spread to most of the nearby lymph nodes or to areas beyond the lymph nodes, the survival rate is about 4 percent.

  “Unfortunately, most-about 85 percent-of our patients come to us with advanced lung cancer,” says Timothy Mullett, M.D., chief of general thoracic surgery at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center and director of the Multidisciplinary Lung Cancer Program at the UK Markey Cancer Center. “One of the most effective ways to fight lung cancer is to diagnose it earlier.”

Only about 6 percent of patients have no symptoms of lung cancer at the time of diagnosis. By the time symptoms do occur, the patient usually is in late stages of the disease.

  The most common symptom of lung cancer is a persistent cough. Other symptoms include recurrent bouts of pneumonia, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, and chest pain. Lung cancer may cause one or all of these symptoms, and none of these symptoms is a sure indicator of lung cancer.

  Cigarette smoking causes most lung cancer cases. In one recent 
study of more than 2,000 lung cancer patients, only 5 percent were nonsmokers.

  Smoke inhaled involuntarily is responsible for about 25 percent of lung cancers in nonsmokers. Passive smoke, or secondhand smoke, is not as concentrated as smoke inhaled directly, but it does contain the same harmful substances.

  Other causes of lung cancer are pipe and cigar smoking and certain chemicals and minerals, such as arsenic, radon, or asbestos.

  Standard treatment for lung cancer involves surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy, either alone or in combination.

But the news is not all grim. Physicians and researchers are working hard to develop new treatments and educational programs to reduce the lung cancer mortality rate.

  “One of the goals of the UK Multidisciplinary Lung Cancer Program is to step up our education efforts and early detection programs so we can provide better, more effective care,” Mullett says.

Researchers at UK Chandler Medical Center and other research institutions, as well as at pharmaceutical companies, are also working on innovative treatments for lung cancer.

  For example, using a combination of gene therapy and immunotherapy, UK researchers are examining treatments that will enhance the ability of the immune system to recognize the tumor cells in lung cancer as foreign and provide stimulatory proteins to increase the number of tumor-fighting cells available.

  “Physicians at the UK Multidisciplinary Lung Cancer Program also participate in several national research studies on lung cancer to bring the most innovative lung cancer treatments available anywhere to Kentuckians, in hopes of improving survival from this devastating disease,” Mullett says.

  The most important message is that lung cancer is not always fatal.

  “With aggressive treatment and more efforts to detect lung cancer early, the overall mortality due to lung cancer that Kentuckians face should be reduced,” Mullett says.

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