Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., resulting in more deaths each year than prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers combined. More than 221,200 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, representing about 13 percent of all cancer diagnoses.
Of all ethnic/racial and gender groups in the United States, African American men are the most likely to develop lung cancer and also to die from the disease. Despite the prevalence of anti-smoking campaigns, African American men continue to smoke and tend to pick up the habit later in life. However, smoking alone cannot explain the high incidence and mortality from the disease in African American men. Many other factors such as environment, genetics, and exposure to carcinogens, contribute to the prevalence of the disease.
Historically, lung cancer has been difficult to treat. It is challenging to detect in its early stages and can take years to develop. Often by the time a patient notices symptoms and is diagnosed, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body which makes the disease more complicated to manage. The good news is that treatment possibilities for those with the disease are expanding. Targeted medicines guided by powerful new screening technologies have the potential to significantly improve lung cancer treatment.
Christopher S. Lathan, M.D. of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is one of the leading experts on this disease. Not only does he research cures, but he also actively treats patients with the disease. We sat down with Dr. Lathan to discuss lung cancer and the impact it’s having on the African American community.
Mocha Man Style: What causes lung cancer?
Dr. Christopher S. Lathan: The main risk factor for lung cancer is cigarette smoking. However, smoking does not explain all cases of the disease. About 15 percent of cases occur in nonsmokers. More research is ongoing to understand the role of risk factors other than smoking.
MMS: Is lung cancer always fatal?
Dr. Lathan: No. When detected at an early stage, lung cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Unfortunately, the disease is frequently found at more advanced stages, when it cannot be cured. This is a tough disease to treat—we’re curing only about 15 percent of people with lung cancer.
MMS: Do beliefs about lung cancer differ among different racial and ethnic groups?
Dr. Lathan: Many African Americans in my clinics tell me that they never thought lung cancer would affect them or their community, even though the disease clearly has a large impact on their community. I also hear people say that there are no treatments for lung cancer, yet treatments are available. My research suggests that African Americans are less likely than whites to think that changing their behavior or lifestyle would decrease their risk of developing lung cancer. This concerns me because getting people to quit smoking is critical for making progress against this disease.
MMS: What should African American men know about smoking and lung cancer?
Dr. Lathan: We stress two messages. First, if you smoke, the best thing you can do for your overall health is to stop. You don’t have to quit on your own—help is available (such as the toll-free quitline 1-877-44U-QUIT). Second, if you smoke now or smoked in the past, talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened for lung cancer based on your age and smoking history.
MMS: How have treatments for lung cancer expanded in recent years?
Dr. Lathan: We now live in an age of personalized medicine. We can identify subgroups of patients with lung cancer who are likely to respond to new treatments. These new therapies are often better at controlling cancer and have fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy.
MMS: What is your vision for combating lung cancer in the future?
Dr. Lathan: In the future, we’re going to detect more lung cancers at earlier stages, when they may be treatable. We’re also making progress in treating lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. And, finally, fewer people smoke today than in the past. All of these things make me hopeful that things are going to get better with this disease.