Targeted therapy means lung cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence

October 20, 2016 07:41 PM

We are shining a light on the number-one cancer killer in America. The American Lung Association says more men and women die from lung cancer than colon, prostate and breast cancer combined. But a lung cancer diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence.

Katherine Bensen has a charmed life. A wonderful marriage and four beautiful kids. But it all changed December 31, 2014. "And I was diagnosed with Adenocarcinoma of the lungs, which is stage 4, and a nonsmoking lung cancer."

That's right; Katherine didn't smoke, so the cause of her illness was a mystery.  And other than a cough and feeling tired, she had no symptoms. That is why they call lung cancer a silent killer. "But I didn't feel sick" she said.

Bob Moffitt from the American Lung Association in Minnesota says we can learn a lot from Katherine. "I think we can learn that lung cancer can happen to anyone at any time in their life,"he said.

The American Lung Association says lung cancer is not just a smoker’s disease, although 90% of it is caused by smoking.

"Minnesota has a slightly lower lung cancer rate than other states"Moffitt said. "And interestingly enough we also have a slightly lower smoking rate than other states. So I think there's definitely a connection there."

He says lung cancer kills almost twice as many women as other cancers. And close to half of women diagnosed won't survive a year.            

Initially, Katherine was told her only option was chemo, and she had 6 to 12 months to live. But, then she discovered she was a candidate for targeted therapy, which she received at Mayo Clinic.  

"So I take one pill a day"Katherine said. "It keeps the cancer contained. So it keeps it from spreading. It's prolonged my life and my quality of life. And I plan on living another 30-40 years with a chronic disease."

So what is targeted therapy?  And how did it stop Katherine's lung cancer from spreading?  We visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to go in depth and talk with her oncologist.

"I think she's alive because of what we have learned about lung cancer in the last 10 years"Dr. Julian Molina said.

Doctor Molina says thanks to targeted therapy, instead of killing people, lung cancer is now a disease patients like Katherine Bensen can live with.

He showed us before and after x-rays from a different patient who received targeted therapy. "Where we see the spots, that's a tumor in the spine. And this patient had targeted therapy and what we see after is that tumor has disappeared from the bones and the patient is doing well."

Molina calls targeted therapy precision medicine, because each tumor is unique. Mayo Clinic runs lab tests that determine what kind of cells are in a tumor. Based on that information, the best drug is selected to target only the genes and proteins that make cancer cells grow.

"It's not that we're curing lung cancer"Molina said. "It's that we're making lung cancer go away for a prolonged period of time."

Targeted therapy isn't for everyone. Doctor Molina says 60% of female lung cancer patients are candidates.  You also need to find a medical facility with technology to determine if it works for you. And while it's covered by most insurance, co-pays can be expensive. So check with your insurance company.

The great news is there are few side effects to the drugs. Which means doctors can target only cancer tumors, not the whole patient.      

Doctor Molina says 224,000 cases of lung cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year. It's the number-one cancer killer in America. But lung cancer ranks ninth in terms of funding for research. 

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Kevin Doran

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