We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.
-Martin Luther King Jr.
For a very long time, lung cancer research had languished and little improvement occurred in treatments and patient care. Most required chemo, radiation, or invasive surgery, or perhaps a combination of all three. Despite these interventions, many patients died. It was a pretty hopeless time.
As recent as 7 years ago, targeted treatments were mostly theoretical, and immunotherapy a pipe dream. Today, both are realities and saving lives. The winds of change are blowing and hope is in the air.
I can tell you what it feels like to come to terms with a terminal illness, how difficult it is to wrap your head around dying before you are 35. I can tell you what it feels like to be written off because there isn’t anything out there that will help. But, I can also tell you about hope. Hope saved my life.
In the 6 years since I was diagnosed and 4 years since I was deemed “terminal” so much has happened in lung cancer research. In those days, physicians only knew about two potential genetic drivers, now we know of 25 and we’re learning more everyday. In that time, pharmaceutical companies have developed targeted kinase inhibitors (TKIs) that target specific genetic anomalies or fusions such as EGFR, ALK, and ROS1. These compounds are better known as targeted therapies and are far more effective in treating patients than chemo is. In many cases, these treatments are pills that one takes daily, they have milder side effects than chemo and can allow patients to live a fairly normal life. We have come so far in this area that second and even third generation drugs are being developed to address resistance to earlier drug compounds.
Another area that has revolutionized treatment is immunotherapy. Just this year the FDA approved two immunotherapy agents for both non-squamous cell lung cancer and squamous cell lung cancer. These agents boost the use of the body’s own immune system to target and kill cancer cells. For the first time in many years there is real hope for patients that have squamous cell lung cancer, one of the most aggressive and deadly types of lung cancer.
In addition to new treatment options, and the discovery of numerous genetic drivers of lung cancer, diagnostic techniques and surgical interventions have become better and less invasive for patients. The use of computerized tomography (CT scans) and positron emission tomography (PET scans) allow physicians to see anomalies at earlier stages and allow for more accurate diagnoses. In addition to this, screening of high-risk populations using low dose CTs allows physicians to follow these patients and diagnose them at earlier stages of the disease, increasing survivorship and quality of life. Not only does this save lives, but it also saves money as these patients require less intervention and can be cured when diagnosed at stage 1 or 2, where surgery alone is curative. Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery or VATS allows patients to undergo surgery, most often a lobectomy (removal of one or more lobes of the lung) with minimal invasion and less risk of complications from surgery, making recovery quicker and easier on the patient and their caregivers.
All these breakthroughs have been achieved despite minimal research funding allocation by governments and private donors. Regardless, patients have a real reason to hope as the dedication of researchers and physicians who are making these discoveries are ushering in a new era in lung cancer research and treatment. One can only imagine the possibilities if there was even a small increase in the amount of funding given to this disease group. One can always hope.
Anne Marie is a 36 year old lung cancer survivor. Originally diagnosed at the age of 30, she put her career as an educator on hold for treatment. After experiencing a recurrence at 32 she was forced to face what it meant to be incurable. Since then, she has become a patient advocate for both the young adult and lung cancer communities. She has spoken internationally about her experience as a young adult living with lung cancer in the hopes of changing the public’s perception of the disease. Anne Marie currently volunteers as a peer supporter and is a sitting board member of Lung Cancer Canada. “My goal as CKN’s Young Adult Editor is to represent the whole cancer experience and the range of challenges young adults face at all stages of the cancer journey, from diagnosis to remission to end of life.”