More Awareness, Support Needed for Lung Cancer

By: Timothy Burns, M.D., Ph.D.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States and worldwide. Last year alone, 226,160 patients were diagnosed with lung cancer and 160,340 people died from this disease in the United States.  It’s a disease that has touched me personally, and shaped my life professionally.
The statistics on lung cancer are startling. For example, did you know that more people die from lung cancer each year than die from prostate, breast, colon and pancreatic cancer combined?  Remarkably, twice as many women die from lung cancer each year than die from breast cancer. But despite this, our country spends only a tenth of what is spent on each breast cancer death for each lung cancer death.  This paucity of research funding has led to a five-year survival for lung cancer patients of only 15 percent.  During this month of November, and going forward, it is critical that we raise awareness and funding for this disease. 
Many of us, including myself, have known a family member or friend who has been diagnosed with lung cancer and in some cases, we have lost our love ones. When I was 7, I lost my father to lung cancer. My mom later died from the disease when I was 16.  Sadly, my parents died during a time when there was very little therapy for this disease and this has inspired me to try to do better.  Today, thankfully, much has changed and this is truly an exciting time for lung cancer research.
Over the last 5 years alone, in collaboration with cancer centers across the country, we have made significant advancements in the treatment of our patients. When a patient is diagnosed with lung cancer at UPMC CancerCenter, we are now able to analyze which genes are responsible for their tumor and try to personalize the therapies based on their individual tumor genetics. This strategy has allowed us to identify patients that can benefit from FDA approved targeted agents in over 25 percent of patients and we are extending the lives of these patients.  For many of our other patients, we are now able to offer them clinical trials in which we personalize their treatment based on the genetics of their tumor.  We are clearly at a point where we no longer are giving every patient the same chemotherapy but now have targeted and effective therapies which are personalized for each individual patient..
However, we clearly need to do better! Many of these patients who initially respond on these newer drugs will eventually progress and we still lack effective therapies for the other 75 percent of our patients. We are all working very hard both in the lab and the clinic to identify new treatments for more of our patients, especially for those  patients in whom we can identify the genes that are responsible for their disease but do not yet have effective therapies for them. In fact, my own lab, our entire lung cancer team and lung cancer researchers nationally are literally working day and night in their laboratories and with clinical trials to develop better treatments for lung cancer. Our progress  depends on raising awareness about lung cancer and increasing funding for the research to continue and expand.
For those who have lung cancer or have friend or a family member with lung cancer and want to get involved, there are several local organizations in our area whose goal is to raise awareness, fund research and assist lung cancer patients and their families. Among those groups are:
  •  The National Lung Cancer Partnership organizes a Free to Breathe Pittsburgh event each year and has events throughout the year. 
  • The Lung Cancer Alliance working locally with Elizabeth Moser to organize lung cancer vigils to remember our love ones. 
  • TheScott A. Garet Memorial Foundation organizes the Flying Monkey 5K each year to honor Scott Garet, who died from lung cancer at age 27 and to raise money and awareness about this disease.

Nationally, organizations such as the American Lung Association, the LUNGevity Foundation and many others work to fund lung cancer research as well.  It is critical, that we all work together to raise awareness about the impact of lung cancer in our community. We must work together to increase funding not only for clinical trials and laboratory research but also for prevention and early detection efforts which can make a dramatic difference.  Finally, we must let lung cancer patients and their families know that they are not alone.