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4 reasons to be optimistic about lung cancer treatments

Ariella Evenzahav PhD
(Former) Head Oncology Centre of Excellence
Hall & Partners Health

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I was reminded that August 1 is World Lung Cancer Day. This prompted me to call my friend Jason to check in on him and congratulate him and tell him how happy I am to have him in my life. Jason is a 5++ year stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer survivor who, despite the dismal prognosis of people in his shoes, has been fortunate enough to have been in amazing hands for his treatment – and, in my opinion, is an incredibly lucky guy.

I also find myself remembering Bernard, a friend and former colleague who – ironically – was working on one of the newest late-stage, highly promising NSCLC targeted agents in development. I’d seen him on one of my recent visits to NYC and we’d chatted and joked around, only to find out in complete shock a few months later that he had passed from the disease he had dedicated his career to help fight.

Today I don’t think we should focus on all the doom and gloom that lung cancer represents; I think we’re all very well aware of the depressing stats. Instead, let’s focus on some of the tremendous progress that we’ve seen in the past two or three decades. Here are some of the major accomplishments that fill me with gratitude and hope:

  1. When I started working in the field, Alimta, a “novel cytotoxic”, was a major breakthrough and we were excited about finally having different treatments for squamous and adenocarcinomas. Today, NSCLC is becoming a highly fragmented tumor type with mutation-specific treatments for multiple lines of therapy. We now have at least ten – am I counting correctly? – targeted or immuno-oncology agents approved for NSCLC treatment, and many more in mid- and late-stage development.
  2. I was often told when I started working in IO many years ago that it was lunacy to believe that immunotherapy would work in lung cancer; now it’s evolving into the standard of care.
  3. The stigma of lung cancer being a “death sentence smokers bring upon themselves” is slowly decreasing, as our understanding of the genetics of the disease is increasing.
  4. Patients generally are not only living longer than they did two decades ago; with the increasing focus on knowledge sharing and overall treatment outcomes, they are also living better lives.

When we look at today’s survival statistics – a little over a year in overall survival and short of 30% one-year survival – we can either focus on how low they still are, or we can celebrate that the numbers are double what they were in the 1990s. For those of us who have worked or are working in this field, let’s keep it up with renewed vigor and enthusiasm so that many more people can receive the care – and possibly the luck – that Jason has.