Everyone’s experience with lung cancer is unique, from their diagnosis through treatment. And while this journey can be complicated and confusing, the outlook for people with lung cancer has never been more hopeful. Today, improved treatment options are available for different types of lung cancers at different stages of disease.
However, cancer care is about much more than treatment. Screening, diagnosis, testing for genetic mutations that may cause the cancer to grow, and ongoing monitoring are all important steps in the lung cancer journey.
Learning how each step contributes to successful cancer care can help anyone touched by lung cancer feel more informed, empowered and supported.
It All Starts With Screening
The lung cancer journey starts at screening. For people at highest risk for lung cancer, getting screened is an essential and potentially life-saving step because lung cancer is most treatable when it’s detected early.
Today, lung cancer screening can be performed for some people with a low-dose CT scan. The test doesn't involve needles and lasts about 30 seconds. Annual screening is especially important for people at high risk for lung cancer because it can detect disease before any symptoms even appear. This includes adults between the ages of 50 and 80 who have a 20 pack-per-year or greater smoking history, and currently smoke or have quit smoking in the past 15 years.
ScreenYourLungs.org offers helpful information about the test used for screening, including a guide for speaking with a doctor about screening, and more.
Because lung cancer is closely linked with smoking, it can sometimes feel like society is judging or blaming those who have it. Sadly, this can keep some people at risk for lung cancer from getting screened or even seeking care. The GO2 Foundation and other support organizations can help people with lung cancer cope with stigma and get the care they need throughout their journey.
Staging Answers “How Much?” and “Where?”
One of an oncologist’s first steps after diagnosing cancer is to measure how much cancer is in the body and if it has spread. This is called “staging” and it helps the medical team determine the best course for treatment.
Stages I, II or IIIA are considered “early stage,” meaning the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body. People whose cancers are in these stages have greater chances of being cured. Cancers that have spread beyond the lungs are considered Stage IV, or advanced cancer.
Getting the Full Picture with Biomarker Testing
A vital but often overlooked step immediately following diagnosis is biomarker testing, which can identify genetic drivers of lung cancer. For many people like Dan and Shirley, who live with advanced NSCLC, biomarker testing can help ensure they get the most appropriate type of treatment. In this video, they share how biomarker testing was a positive step that benefited the rest of their lung cancer journey.
In fact, many people with lung cancer today can benefit from targeted cancer therapies, which target specific genetic mutations or proteins, known as biomarkers, in cancer cells. These medicines have transformed lung cancer treatment; in fact, more than 20 targeted therapies are now FDA-approved to treat people with the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). But getting matched with a targeted treatment requires receiving a complete, personalized cancer diagnosis through biomarker testing.
Through comprehensive biomarker testing, doctors test for all recommended biomarkers for each type and stage of NSCLC, based on the most current clinical guidelines. And while comprehensive testing can take four weeks or longer, it is an essential step to analyze the full spectrum of biomarkers for which there are approved targeted treatments.
Understanding Treatment Options
Staging and biomarker testing can help cancer specialists select the most appropriate treatment at every stage of disease.
Today, people with certain types of early-stage NSCLC have the opportunity to be treated with immunotherapy, a type of anti-cancer medicines that harness the body’s immune system to fight tumor cells, though they may also affect healthy cells. Over the past decade, immunotherapy has become an option for a growing number of late-stage cancers. Now, following years of research, immunotherapy can also be used during the critical early stages of disease.
The final decision on treatment should be based on candid conversations between people diagnosed with lung cancer, their families and their doctor. Important considerations about available options include how they are given, and potential side effects and how they might be managed.
For some people, clinical trials – carefully monitored scientific research studies – can provide access to emerging, cutting-edge treatments designed for their specific disease. The American Lung Association provides information about clinical trials of experimental lung cancer treatments that patients and their families can discuss with their treatment team. Since many clinical trials today involve targeted medicines, biomarker testing can be important to help match someone to an appropriate trial for their type of disease.
Treatment isn’t the last step in the lung cancer journey, however. Following treatment, there is still the possibility of experiencing after-effects of the medicine or the cancer returning. This is why a patient’s care team conducts ongoing monitoring of both the cancer and their overall health.
A More Hopeful Journey
Lung cancer can cause uncertainty and even fear, which is why finding support is so important no matter the stage of the journey. The American Cancer Society and other organizations provide valuable support and resources for those living with lung cancer and their families from the time of diagnosis all the way through treatment and beyond. And while there is still a long way to go, early screening, innovative treatment advances and other progress in care have all contributed to an era of greater hope for people diagnosed with lung cancer.