Given a Choice, Get Anything Other Than Lung Cancer

It’s no secret that oncologists and cancer researchers have made pitifully little progress against lung cancer, even compared to the less-than-stellar progress against other cancers, as I explained in a recent story. But as the Lung Cancer Alliance, a patient-advocacy group, details in its annual report card—filled with F’s—the news is so grim that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that we need a whole new approach to this tragic disease.

Some of the highlights—or lowlights—include the fact that lung cancer remains the nation’s #1 cause of cancer death: it will claim another 162,000 lives by the time 2008 ends, triple the number of deaths from prostate cancer, nearly twice as many deaths as from breast cancer and more than from breast, prostate, colon, leukemia, ovarian and cervical cancer combined. Nor has there been any progress on five-year survival: only 15% of patients make it to this milestone, compared to 89% for breast cancer, 99% for prostate cancer and 65% for colon cancer. Because there is no good early-screening technique, only 16% of lung cancers are diagnosed at an early, potentially-curable stage. That compares to 61% for breast cancers, 91% of prostate cancers and 39% of colon cancers.

Why is progress essentially nonexistent? Lung cancer is particularly tricky in terms of its genetics, with malignant cells amassing countless mutations that, among other things, allow them to outfox both standard chemotherapies and newer targeted molecular drugs including angiogenesis inhibitors. There’s nothing we can do about that basic biology.

But oncologists tell me there is another reason: there is such stigma attached to lung cancer, because of the view that only people stupid enough to smoke develop it and it is therefore their own dumb fault, that research funding remains criminally tight, especially compared to “celebrity” cancers such as breast and prostate. Lung cancer doesn't have the celebrity spokespeople that these cancers do, so less money is raised from the public. it doesn't have anything like the pink ribbons and "runs for the cure" of breast cancer, for the same reason. In other words, it's not even a fair fight.