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Progress & Timeline
More than 200,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer annually, and the disease is the nation's leading cause of cancer death. In many ways, progress against lung cancer has been frustratingly slow, in part because research investments have been small relative to other common cancers. But there have also been remarkable successes. Most visibly, aggressive anti-smoking initiatives have spared thousands of people from lung cancer in the first place. The annual number of new cases in the U.S. has dropped 14 percent since the mid-1990s. And for people who develop lung cancer despite these efforts, the pace of progress has accelerated in a number of areas:
- Adjuvant therapy: In the last decade, researchers demonstrated that adjuvant therapy – use of anti-cancer treatments after surgery – can extend survival in people with early stages of the disease.
- Supportive care: Treatments to reduce the side effects of cancer therapy enable patients to receive more aggressive treatment without diminishing their quality of life. For patients with advanced disease, research has shown that providing palliative care (to manage the pain and side effects) can both improve and extend their lives.
- Personalized treatment: While lung cancer was once classified simply by a tumor's appearance under a microscope, researchers can now identify and treat tumors based on their genetic characteristics. Targeted drugs are already benefiting certain genetically-defined groups of patients, and many more drugs are now under development.
- Screening: Lung cancer survival is low in part because most cases are detected at a late stage, when the cancer has spread. But a major study recently showed that CT scanning can reduce cancer deaths among heavy smokers by catching more cases early, when they're most treatable.
Long-term lung cancer survival, while low, has edged upward in recent decades. With continued investments in clinical research and increased use of new screening advances, greater improvements are within reach.