New innovations offer “improvements” in lung cancer treatment
Respiratory Mortality rates among lung cancer patients are high — but new innovations offer hope to those in the early stages of the disease, and better management for patients with more advanced cases.
The most common cancer killer in Ireland isn't bowel or breast cancer. It's lung cancer. In fact, lung cancer kills more people every year than bowel and breast cancer combined.
“There are approximately 2,500 new cases of lung cancer every year in Ireland,” says Dr Ross Morgan, Consultant Respiratory Physician at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin. “It's the cause of one in 5 of all cancer-related deaths. Only one in eight people with lung cancer survive it.”
The reason for this high mortality rate is that symptoms are sometimes hard to spot, and many patients are only diagnosed in advanced stages. “Unlike other cancers where patients present with a lump, lung cancer tumours can be large before the disease becomes apparent,” says Morgan. “And many symptoms — such as a cough that doesn't go away — are common to other ailments.”
That said, Morgan insists the lung cancer community is optimistic about the future of treatment. “In the past it's a disease which has been difficult to treat,” he says. “But we now understand much more about different types of lung cancer, and many new innovations are now available when it comes to diagnosis and treatment.”
One area of innovation is lung cancer screening for those who are considered at risk of developing the disease, although this is expensive and hasn't yet arrived in Ireland. “However,” says Morgan, “I would expect it to be available in Ireland and the UK in the next four to five years.”
There has also been a vast improvement in rapid organisation of lung cancer care. “Individuals with suspected lung cancer can now be referred to a Rapid Access clinic for quick assessment,” says Morgan. “About half of all lung cancers are detected through these clinics. Also, new minimally invasive procedures and scope tests are available, including Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS), to help with diagnosis.” And rather than seeing one specialist, lung cancer patients can now expect a multi-disciplinary approach to their illness, which gives better outcomes.
In early stage cases, lung cancer may be operable (and potentially curable). “Approximately 20 per cent of cases are operable,” says Morgan. “Surgical techniques have improved and are now less invasive, and offer less time in hospital for the patient and better chances of cure.” Radiation techniques have also improved for those with early stage cancer, which means tumours can be targeted more precisely.
For those with late stage cancers, where surgery is not an option, treatment has become far more personalised. “We now better understand the biology of different lung cancer tumours,” says Morgan. “This means we can offer targeted treatments which have helped in the management of advanced stage cases.”
However, Morgan stresses that prevention is better than cure — and highlights that the number one cause of lung cancer is smoking. His advice, therefore: don't smoke, or quit if you do. And exercise, too. “Use your lungs,” he says. “You can do that by keeping yourself active.”