Memorial Sloan Kettering Shares 4 Critical Ways to Prevent and Manage Lung Cancer

Dr. David Jones

To recognize the beginning of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) today shared four important pieces of information for individuals at high risk of lung cancer and their loved ones.

Around one in 16 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime, and more than 228,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year. Given the rapid spread of COVID-19 – a virus that also attacks the lungs – it is more important than ever for Americans to understand both the risks of lung cancer, as well as the steps they can take to fight it or reduce their risk of developing the deadly disease, which represents 13 percent of all cancer diagnoses but accounts for more than 25 percent of all cancer deaths. Lung cancer has a five-year survival rate of just 19 percent, compared with 89 percent for breast cancer, with 433 people in the U.S. killed by lung cancer each day.

“This is a crucial time for lung cancer awareness,” says David R. Jones, MD, Chief of the Thoracic Surgery Service at MSK. “Individuals at risk of lung cancer are less likely to be screened than those at risk of other cancers. What’s more, the pandemic has led to a decrease in screenings and treatment for all cancers. We want to make sure that Americans not only understand the risks of lung cancer, but also know that there are steps they can take to help prevent and treat the disease.”

MSK shared the following information:

Lung cancer screenings are quick and easy – and they work

Today, individuals at high risk for lung cancer, both current and former smokers, can be screened with a basic “low-dose” CT scan. The scan – which takes just a few minutes and is non-invasive –  is covered by most insurance plans for those that meet criteria.

Getting screened and diagnosed early is a powerful way to substantially increase the chance of curing lung cancer. “The majority of patients whose lung cancer is detected by screening have very early stage disease, and this results in a phenomenal increase in survival,” explains Bernard Park, MD, Deputy Chief of Clinical Affairs of the Thoracic Surgery Service at MSK. “At MSK, we have an online questionnaire that allows patients to find out if they’re eligible for screening with three brief questions. From there, patients can schedule a short telemedicine visit with a licensed practitioner to confirm that they’re eligible followed immediately by a non-contrast, low-dose CT scan that takes all of five minutes.  The whole screening experience takes about 15 minutes plus travel.”  If discovered early, thoracic surgeons at MSK can remove these lung cancers using minimally-invasive approaches such a video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) or robotic-assisted procedures.

To find out if you are eligible for a lung cancer screening at an MSK facility, take our two-minute quiz.

There are more and more ways to effectively eradicate lung cancer

Over the past couple of years, there have been major advances in the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. These include new technologies such as the robotic bronchoscopy, a diagnostic tool based on 3D imaging technology that allows for precise navigation within the lung, targeted treatments based on the genetic profile of tumors that can kill tumor cells with just a daily pill, and newer forms of precise radiation, such as proton therapy, that limit damage to healthy tissue.

As a result, lung cancer care is becoming more individualized and precise with each passing day, which means that individuals with lung cancer – or at a higher risk of the disease – should feel optimistic about the prospects for treatment. “We’re in a new era where every lung cancer patient can get a personalized, genetic report of their tumor. This allows us to tailor treatments to the specific characteristics of an individual’s disease,” says Helena Yu, MD, a medical oncologist at MSK. “In the last 10 years, the advent of targeted therapies and immunotherapies has really revolutionized the way that we treat lung cancer. Both treatments are so effective that we’re able to both cure more people and help those with incurable lung cancer live longer.”

COVID-19 and smoking are a dangerous combination

It is well known that smoking is dangerous, those who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. But as we continue to fight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, data show that in addition to having a significantly higher risk of contracting lung cancer, regular tobacco users can be more likely to contract COVID-19 as well. Not only do people who smoke have lungs that are more susceptible to COVID-19, the act of smoking outside requires individuals to pull down their masks and frequently touch their face or lips with their hands, actions that put people at higher risk of the virus.

What’s more, there’s compelling evidence that smoking can intensify the effects of COVID-19. “We know that individuals who smoke clearly have a higher risk of developing complications and a more severe case of COVID-19,” says Tobias Hohl, MD, PhD, Chief of the Infectious Disease Service at MSK. “If you are thinking of quitting, now would be a fantastic time to do so.”

Everyone has a role to play in preventing and fighting lung cancer

Although lung cancer is very common, far fewer high-risk people are screened for it compared to the number of individuals who obtain mammograms, colonoscopies, and other common cancer screening procedures. This dynamic is a result of the shame – unfounded, but prevalent – that people who smoke often feel. In order to help loved ones quit smoking and participate in a simple screening test, and as a result, reduce their chances of contracting lung cancer, it’s important to approach them with empathy, encouragement and intention.

“If you have a loved one who struggles with tobacco, it’s important to tell them that you care about them and understand they’re in a challenging situation,” says Jamie Ostroff, Director of MSK’s Tobacco Treatment Program. “It’s also important to work together to have a smoke-free home, a smoke-free car and be your loved one’s biggest supporter because that’s likely what they need more than anything.”

“We have made significant progress in treating lung cancer and encouraging people to stop smoking, leading to a sharp decline in lung cancer deaths, which fell 51 percent from 1990 to 2017 among men and 26 percent from 2002 to 2017 among women. But we cannot stop now. We need more funding for research and more screening,” Dr. Jones says. “As we mark Lung Cancer Awareness Month this November, we call on all Americans to embrace healthy living, continue the battle against smoking and reduce the threat of lung cancer.”

To make an appointment at MSK, call 800-525-2225.