Lung Cancer | Cancer Types - National Foundation for Cancer Research

Lung Cancer

Lung Cancer

Hundreds of thousands of people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. each year. In fact, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. Thankfully, researchers are making great strides in understanding this disease and how to more effectively treat it.

Key Facts

  • In the U.S., an estimated 235,760 people will receive a diagnosis of lung cancer this year.
  • Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women and expects to claim 131,880 lives in 2021 in the U.S.
  • While cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, almost 20% of lung cancer cases occur in non-smokers.  
  • Only 17% of people with lung cancer receive the diagnosis at the earliest stage, when the disease is most treatable. The five-year survival for early stage, localized lung cancer is 59%.
  • Currently, a low-dose CT scan is the only proven effective way to screen for lung cancer.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021

Signs and Symptoms

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing
Source: American Cancer Society
White Lung Cancer Ribbon
235760
new cases expected in 2021
131880
deaths annually
17
of cases detected early

Lung Cancer Research

In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack lung cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.

Wei Zhang, Ph.D.
Wei Zhang, Ph.D.

Dr. Wei Zhang’s precision oncology research aims to reduce the survival disparity between non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) African American patients (low survival) and Caucasian American patients (higher survival). His clinical data show African American patients respond better to the new immune checkpoint therapy suggesting it has an important role in increasing their survival. Results from cutting-edge single cell RNA sequencing indicate their tumors have more cell components that this therapy reactivates to fight cancer. Dr. Zhang is identifying mutations in their tumors. This will be the largest dataset for the African American NSCLC population and it will available to the research community with the hope that results lead to a reduction in the health care disparity.

Michael B. Sporn, M.D.
Michael B. Sporn, M.D.

NFCR-funded scientist Dr. Michael Sporn, conducted laboratory and clinical research on fenretinide, a drug with similar structure to Vitamin A and proved its safety for use in humans. It was subsequently shown to be both safe and effective in treating several cancers. With support from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, fenretinide and a novel delivery system will soon begin a Phase I clinical trial and treat T cell-non Hodgkin lymphoma patients who have relapsed or stopped responding to their current therapy. With success, patients with small cell lung cancer (SCLC), which is difficult-to-treat and represents 13% of lung cancers, may benefit from this innovative treatment.

Daniel Von Hoff, M.D
Daniel Von Hoff, M.D

Dr. Daniel Von Hoff is conducting translational research to develop a strategic antibody treatment for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The antibodies target a key molecule in the cells surrounding tumors that are known to cause tumor aggressiveness and resistance to treatment. Dr. Von Hoff has personally been involved in over 200 clinical trials. With support from NFCR, testing of the antibodies is ongoing in the preclinical studies that are necessary to gain approval for clinical trials to treat patients. Colorectal cancer is the first cancer to undergo antibody treatment in clinical trials. Lung cancer will be the next cancer for the new treatment.

Highlights of Past Accomplishments

Daniel A. Haber, Ph.D.
Daniel A. Haber, M.D., Ph.D.

In July 2016, the FDA approved the drug Iressa® as a front-line treatment for patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) – and the approval is only for patients with the specific tumor mutations originally identified by Dr. Daniel Haber.

Susan B. Horwitz, Ph.D.
Susan B. Horwitz, Ph.D.

Dr. Susan Horwitz’s work has been instrumental in the development of Taxol®, a natural product used to treat over 1.5 million cancer patients with lung, breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancer. From 2016 to 2020, Dr. Horwitz collaborated with organic chemist Dr. Amos B. Smith III to develop similar natural product drugs to overcome resistance to Taxol experienced by patients. They synthesized analogues of discodermolide, a natural product from a Caribbean Sea sponge that works similar to Taxol. In lung cancer models, the lead compounds killed cancer cells with reduced toxicity. Future development of the most promising candidate may lead to a new treatment for cancer patients.

Amos B. Smith III, Ph.D.
Amos B. Smith III, Ph.D.
Alice T. Shaw, M.D., Ph.D.
Alice T. Shaw, M.D., Ph.D.

Thanks to NFCR-funded research from 2014 to 2019 by Dr. Alice Shaw, a new and better way to treat cancer resistance is emerging. By successfully identifying drug combinations that halted the growth of resistant cells in tumor models, her research is leading to development of effective therapeutic strategies for patients with ALK-positive NSCLC (mutations in the ALK gene).

Related Content

Lung Cancer Awareness Month: Wildfires and Cancer

It’s already November and the dystopian year of 2020 has hardly been mundane. The year began with Australia ablaze, sending the world into a panic about the wellbeing of Australians and their notorious animals. As the year continued, health and wellbeing remained a priority for people around the world. Now, as the west coast is affected by disastrous wildfires, questions of health begin to arise once again. What’s the risk? Many people affected by the wildfires have expressed concerns about the long-term impacts the smoke may have on their health and how they can protect themselves and their family. The smoke from wildfires may have long-term health effects, but healthcare professionals advise that it is actually particles within the smoke that cause the biggest threat. Most smoke is filled with ash and debris, which can be harmful to ones’ health. Wildfire smoke, however, is particularly dangerous as the debris comes from a variety of burnt material, including appliances, home structures, and vehicles. Because there is such a large variety of burnt material, it is difficult to know exactly what is being inhaled, and therefore, how much of a cancer risk it may pose. Researchers have been curious about the cancerous effects of wildfire smoke on proximate citizens, but there is limited data available regarding length of exposure. Most published studies that have identified a link between wildfire smoke and an increased lung cancer risk have involved firefighters. These studies suggest that there is, in fact, a correlation between wildfire smoke and cancer; however the majority of the participants endured prolonged exposure. More data is required to determine the correlation of cancer risk with short-term exposure. How can I protect myself? As researchers continue to determine the risk wildfire smoke bears, the National Foundation for Cancer Research recommends taking precautions when exposed to wildfire smoke. Breathing in the ash and debris may pose a cancer risk, but it also has been linked to heart disease, COPD, and other respiratory conditions. To protect oneself, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests wearing a heavy-duty mask called a respirator when outdoors near smoke for an extended period of time. These masks are more protective than paper dust masks, which look like surgical masks, as they can trap smaller particles common in wildfire smoke. Staying inside can be a safe option if the air quality is low but the fires don’t present immediate danger to the area. When staying inside, it is important to keep doors and windows closed and secure and to run an air conditioner with the fresh air intake closed. Clean air conditioner filters will also help clear any debris or particles that may be in the air. It is also advised that families avoid vacuuming as it can redistribute settled particles into the air. For cancer patients or people who already have asthma or another lung disease, it is important to speak to a doctor to develop an action plan. Having an action plan ready, including an emergency contact, list of medications, and evacuation plan, can save time and help one’s family think quickly and clearly in […]

Small Cell Lung Cancer vs. Non-small Cell Lung Cancer: What’s the Difference?

From a distance, lung cancer may seem straightforward and cut-and-dried. The name itself sparks an immediate mental image of the balloon-like organ located in the chest cavity. It’s common knowledge that tobacco smoke is the leading cause of lung cancer, and that it is amongst the most common type of cancer. While these are great facts for the public to know offhand, there is actually quite a bit more information about lung cancer that is less commonly known. Small Cell Lung Cancer vs Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Lung cancer diagnoses are broken down into two main groups: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). SCLC often starts in the bronchi, or the airways that lead from the trachea into the lungs and then branch off into progressively smaller structures. After affecting the bronchi, SCLC quickly grows and spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes. This type of lung cancer represents fewer than 20% of lung cancers and is typically caused by tobacco smoking. SCLC itself is broken down into another two categories: small cell carcinoma and combined small cell carcinoma. These two categories are used to distinguish the small cells when viewed under a microscope. Small cell carcinoma is the most common type of SCLC and looks flat under a microscope, much like oats. Combined small cell carcinoma refers to a tumor made up of small cell carcinoma cells and a small number of non-small cell lung cancer cells. NSCLC accounts for nearly nine out of every 10 diagnoses and typically grows at a slower rate than SCLC. This type of lung cancer often develops slowly and causes few or no symptoms until it has advanced. There are three main types of NSCLC: adenocarcinoma of the lung, squamous cell, and large-cell undifferentiated carcinoma. Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of lung cancer, accounting for 30% of all cases overall and about 40% of all non-small cell lung cancer occurrences. This type of cancer is also found in other common cancers, including breast cancer and prostate cancer.  In NSCLC, it is found in the outer region of the lung, in glands that secrete mucus. Squamous cell lung cancer is responsible for about 30% of all non-small cell lung cancers and is generally linked to smoking. This type of cancer begins in the center of the lung. Large-cell undifferentiated carcinoma lung cancer accounts for approximately 10-15% of all NSCLC diagnoses. It can begin in any part of the lung and is known to grow and spread quickly. How Does Treatment Differ? Like most cancers, the treatment options are dependent on the stage the disease. The pace of treatment for SCLC is generally faster than NSCLC due to the tumors’ ability to quickly spread. NSCLC is less aggressive; however, it is typically identified at a later stage. In fact, only an approximate 25% of NSCLC patients are diagnosed at stage 1 or 2. For the minority who are diagnosed at stage 1 or 2, surgery to remove the tumor is often an option. Patients in the later stages are typically treated with chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment […]

Why is Lung Cancer So Deadly?

Only 16% of lung cancers are identified at an early stage, making treatment and survival much more difficult. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer. Tragically, lung cancer is amongst the deadliest form of cancer, claiming more lives each year than breast, prostate, and colon cancers combined. With other forms of cancer being extremely treatable, many are left asking why lung cancer is still claiming so many lives each year. One of the most common misconceptions is that lung cancer is so deadly simply because it is common. However, when compared to other extremely common cancers, such as breast cancer, the number of deaths is still highly disproportionate. Breast cancer has seen a great and consistent decrease in number of deaths in relation to the number of cases since 1989. This is attributed to both the advances in treatment and advances in early detection measures. Breast cancer today is able to be detected at an early stage, greatly improving a patient’s chance of survival. Lung cancer has benefited from improved treatment options, however only 16% of lung cancers are identified at an early stage. As lungs are an internal organ, they cannot be externally examined, and symptoms only occur once the cancer has advanced. This makes it extremely difficult for lung cancer to be detected early. Once the disease spreads, it is considered metastatic lung cancer. This means that the cancer cells are able to spread to other areas of the body, making treatment also extremely difficult. Because the vast majority of lung cancer cases are diagnosed in the metastatic stage, chemotherapy is typically the best treatment option. Unfortunately, chemotherapy is not always effective. Some lung cancer cells are intrinsically resistant to chemotherapy while others develop a resistance and then multiply. The lack of other treatment options greatly contributes to lung cancer’s shocking death toll. Thankfully, many researchers around the world are working tirelessly to create early detection tools and better treatment options. New studies have shown that low-dose CT screening can aid in early detection of lung cancer. This screening is available for people who are considered high risk for lung cancer, such as people who smoke regularly or people who used to smoke regularly. In addition to increasing the early detection rate, researchers are uncovering the mystery behind chemotherapy resistant cancer cells. NFCR-funded researchers Dr. Alice Shaw, Dr. Michael Sporn, and Dr. Daniel Von Hoff have been working on separate projects exploring ways to successfully treat lung cancer that would likely be resistant to chemotherapy. Dr. Shaw has identified unique drug combinations that have halted the growth of resistant cells in tumor models. This treatment is currently available in clinical trials and will likely lead the way in the development of effective therapies. Dr. Sporn has also discovered an innovative treatment option for similarly difficult to treat cancers. His treatment is currently in Phase 1 of clinical trials for lymphoma patients with plans to eventually trial the treatment in lung cancer patients. Dr. Von Hoff is conducting game-changing translational research to develop a strategic antibody treatment of lung cancer. These antibodies are currently […]