Dr. Paul Wheatley- Price
Chair, Medical Advisory Board, Lung Cancer Canada

Unfair prejudice

There’s a seriously damaging stigma that’s been attached to lung cancer for decades, resulting in significant negative impacts. From a lack of medical funding (it only receives seven percent of all cancer financial support) to the shaming of those fighting the disease, lung cancer has received little public sympathy or attention.

The fact is that if you have lungs, you’re at risk of getting lung cancer. One in twelve Canadians will be diagnosed with the disease, and while the majority will be smokers, lung cancer shouldn’t be seen as just a smokers’ disease. Fifteen percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked.  Amongst the smoking-related cancers, many patients have worked incredibly hard to quit the addiction — often many years prior to diagnosis. Just last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized air pollution as a cause of lung cancer. There is, for some reason, a net of blame cast upon lung cancer patients, as if they’re personally at fault for falling ill.

This lack of empathy and the eagerness to judge those affected by lung cancer is summed up by Roz Brodsky. As someone living with lung cancer, she says, “when I tell people that I have lung cancer, the first thing they ask is not ‘how are you,’ but ‘do or did you smoke?’

New hope

Despite all of the stigma and the barriers that lung cancer treatment methods create, exciting developments could spell a brighter future for those affected by the disease. Early-stage cancer patients have options when it comes to treatment, and often get to choose between undergoing surgery to have the tumour removed or receiving chemotherapy.

“Around 60 percent of people will already have metastases [advanced stage cancer] when they’re originally diagnosed with lung cancer,” says Dr. Paul Wheatley-Price, Chair of Lung Cancer Canada’s Medical Advisory Board and Assistant Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Ottawa. 

Historically, late detection has meant a lack of options for lung cancer patients. Although, now there are rays of hope on the horizon; there are new innovations which have the ability to safely detect lung cancer earlier, as well as new treatments that prevent cancer cell growth, halt cell progression, and even kill cancer cells. This is all done without harming the body’s normal, healthy cells.

“Targeted therapies give oncologists the ability to identify the genetic fingerprint of the cancer,” says Dr. Wheatley-Price. “With that ability, we can, in some cases, discover what mutations have occurred to cause that cancer to spread.” 

Other exciting breakthroughs are the development of high-precision radiation, robotic surgery, and new evidence supporting low-dose CT scans as an effective screening tool for lung cancer, helping to catch the disease in its early stages.

The future of treatment

These recent advancements could be the breakthrough that leads to a future of more effective treatments for all types of lung cancer. “In the next ten years we are going to discover more and more of these different mutations,” says Dr. Wheatley-Price. “It’s slow progress on a global scale, but if you’re the patient with a new mutation that we’ve discovered, things will be revolutionized for you.”

“Targeted therapies give oncologists the ability to identify the genetic fingerprint of the cancer.”

Immunotherapy treatment for lung cancer is the new hot topic. As a tumour grows, it masks its presence in the body, hiding from the immune system and, at the same time, suppresses the immune system’s effectiveness. Immunotherapy drugs that are currently in development stop that suppression, giving the immune system the power to fight the cancer. No immunotherapy medications have been approved by Health Canada yet, but medical trials are giving some very positive results, says Dr. Wheatley-Price. 

“For a portion of patients in clinical trials, we’re seeing that these drugs are not only effective, but they seem to be durable too; you get an improvement and it lasts a long time,” he says. “For those patients, it potentially revolutionizes their prognosis.”

Life-changing benefits

These newly-developed treatments have benefits for patients that go beyond killing cancer cells — they help to improve quality of life. Most of the new therapies either use minimally-invasive surgical techniques, or are given as tablet treatments. This means that patients don’t have to visit a hospital every few weeks for intravenous infusions of chemotherapy. Additionally, patients have fewer and/or more manageable side effects compared to chemotherapy. 

“Without new advances, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Anne-Marie Cerato, who was diagnosed when she was 30. “Lung cancer is a usurper of life — often a death sentence for those who are diagnosed. New therapies bring new hope. I can honestly say that at this stage of my diagnosis I view my disease as chronic, not terminal. It has given me my life back!”