CHICAGO — Talking about the ravages of lung cancer brings the disease front and center and reminds people to pay attention to their health. It also shines a spotlight on the need for better treatments.
And for those in the lung cancer community, it is a powerful example of how patients are still stigmatized.
When news surfaced about Kathy Griffin’s Stage 1 cancer diagnosis Monday, virtually every report was followed by the revelation the comedian never smoked a day in her life.
Dr. Christopher Seder is chief of thoracic surgery at Rush University Medical Center.
“We know that 80% or 85% of non-small cell lung cancers, that’s the most common form, are in smokers,” he said. “That still leaves 10% or 15% of people who are never smokers who do develop lung cancer.”
Jill Feldman is a lung cancer survivor.
“This woman was just diagnosed with a life-threatening disease,” she said of Griffin. “What we should be asking is does she have access to the best treatment? Does she have access to quality care?”
While smoking, diet, weight are all associated with cancer, lung cancer survivors say after a disease diagnosis is never a time to point fingers.
“The stigma surrounding lung cancer and the blame culture is pervasive. No other disease has a culture of blame and shame like lung cancer does,” Feldman said. “The problem with the stigma is it creates barriers to diagnosis and treatment and quality care. End it also creates barriers to research into other risk factors of lung cancer.”
Feldman is working to change that. She lost both of her parents to lung cancer.
“I have the EGFR mutation,” she said.
She’s been pushing the disease back with surgery and emerging therapies for 12 years. All that time she has been speaking out. Doctors who treat the disease say education is key to prevention and early diagnosis, but so is a medical focus on expanding care.
And with lung cancer, there are a few more options now.
“The field of lung cancer treatment is rapidly changing. There are a number of targeted agents that were not available 5 or 10 years ago that are now available that we’re seeing encouraging, early but encouraging outcomes,” Seder said. “Lung cancer is tough but the best way to cure it is to catch it early and when it is caught early thru lung cancer screening like Kathy Griffin had you give patients the best chance at beating it.”
A low-dose CT scan has been shown to improve survival.
Current guidelines call for screening in those who have smoked a pack a day for 30 years and are 55 to 80 years old.
More recent studies suggest there may be a benefit for patients as young as 50 who have smoked a pack a day for 20 years
Don’t ignore a persistent cough, chest pain, shoulder pain, loss of appetite and weight. Finding disease at an earlier more treatable stage extends life.
“When caught in early stages you have an 80% or 85% percent chance of beating it,” Seder said.
“So there is hope,” Feldman said.