Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in this country among both men and women, but a new treatment is giving some patients hope in their fight.
While chemotherapy drugs are effective in helping to kill cancer cells, they can damage normal tissues too, and the side effects can be unpleasant and debilitating. A new FDA-approved treatment works by stopping those side effects from happening in the first place by protecting the healthy cells before chemo begins.
Montessa Lee, a special education teacher, was in shock when she was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer at age 28. She had never smoked and maintained a healthy diet.
"After being misdiagnosed twice through an X-ray, they finally found a tumor the size of a cantaloupe," she said.
Soon after the diagnosis, Lee underwent six rounds of radiation and chemotherapy to treat the aggressive tumor and says the side effects were debilitating.
"With the chemotherapy I experienced hair loss. The chemotherapy also impacted my hearing," she said. ".... At 28 years old, imagine going from an active life to barely being able to walk around my apartment complex without feeling like I was exhausted. My legs felt like weights."
The treatment saved her life; Lee has been cancer-free for 15 years and has scans done every six months. Now, she’s turned her experience into advocacy – sharing the importance of early detection and treatment.
Each year, more Americans will die from lung cancer than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. The disease can go undiagnosed for a long time because symptoms don’t often appear until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
"We've made more progress in lung cancer in the past five to seven years than the previous 30 years combined," said Dr. Vincent Lam, an assistant professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins.
Lam says part of that progress means more treatment options, including a new FDA-approved drug called Cosela that works to limit the side effects caused by chemo, making the therapy safer and more tolerable.
"Unfortunately, there can also be some collateral damage in that good cells are often impacted, such as your white blood cells that help fight infection or red blood cells that help carry oxygen throughout our blood," Lam said.
"This new treatment is given before chemotherapy is started and in a way temporarily puts the good cells to sleep so that they can be protected from the collateral damage," he said.
Dr. Lam says the drug is given through an infusion up to four hours before a patient receives chemotherapy, helping them live longer, fuller lives.
"Our patients with lung cancer are living longer than we've ever seen and that's because of research," Lam said.
Cosela is only approved for patients with small cell lung cancer. But Dr. Lam tells us clinical trials are underway to see if this same approach can one day be used to help people battling breast cancer, colon cancer and bladder cancer.
The American Lung Association on Tuesday released new data revealing lung cancer survival rates have increased nationwide but remains significantly low among minority communities.