The national survival rate for lung cancer has risen more than 5 percentage points over the past five years, from 21.7 to 26.6 percent, said Zach Jump, the American Lung Association’s national senior director of epidemiology, statistics and research.
Treatments that boost the immune system to attack cancer cells Targeted immunotherapies, experts say has contributed to the overall improvement. Other factors include better access to lung cancer screening, greater awareness of the disease, and a greater willingness of patients to discuss lung cancer with their medical providers.
Stigma surrounding the disease has long been one of the main culprits for late diagnosis, along with historically poor treatment options.
“People thought it was a death sentence, so they kind of refused,” Jump said.
However, the nationwide numbers mask disparities in diagnoses and outcomes at the state and community level. The report shows that Utah has the lowest rate of new lung cancers in the nation, while Kentucky has the highest. Experts believe smoking rates are one of the biggest factors.
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Comparing communities of color with white individuals, the data show that black people have a 16 percent lower survival rate, and Latinos are 9 percent less likely to survive. Asians were 14 percent more likely to survive compared to whites, while American Indians and Alaska Natives had similar survival rates to their white counterparts.
Part of the challenge is low screening rates for lung cancer. Unlike many other organs, lung tissue does not have many pain receptors, so the patient cannot feel anything until the disease spreads to the lung lining or beyond. But annual low-dose CT scans can detect the disease in its early stages.
In 2021, the United States Preventive Services Task Force — an independent expert panel that evaluates the effectiveness of preventive health care — lowered the recommended age for starting screening from 55 to 50. The amendment also increased the number of people falling under it. A high risk type of lung cancer. But the report found that only 4.5 percent of high-risk individuals were screened.
Health insurance coverage may be one reason for low screening rates. Medicaid is not required to cover lung cancer screenings, so barriers, including pre-authorization and out-of-pocket fees from insurance providers, may deter people trying to access the test, the Cancer Society reports.
Millions more smokers should be screened for lung cancer, the group says
Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, but rates are increasing among non-smokers. Other contributing factors include radon, air pollution and secondhand smoke.
“It’s becoming not just a disease of people of color, but a disease of young women who don’t smoke,” said Janney Reisenauer, MD, an interventional pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Unlike other cancers, such as breast cancer, public health awareness and messaging about lung cancer is not widespread, Risenauer says.
“Some of the reluctance to do that with lung cancer is that there’s always been this link that it’s a smoker’s disease, so I think some of that public messaging needs to change,” Reisenauer said.