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After 40 years of smoking, she survived lung cancer thanks to new treatments

Denise Lee on her last day of chemo. In addition to chemo and surgery, she was treated with immunotherapy. She's currently in remission.
Denise Lee
Denise Lee on her last day of chemo. In addition to chemo and surgery, she was treated with immunotherapy. She's currently in remission.

Denise Lee grew up in Detroit in the mid-1970s and went to an all-girls Catholic high school. She smoked her first cigarette at age 14 at school, where cigarettes were a popular way of trying to lose weight.

Instead, her nicotine addiction lasted four decades until she quit in her mid-50s.

"At some point it got up as high as 2.5 packs a day," Lee, 62, recalls.

Yet she didn't think about lung cancer risk — until she saw a billboard urging former smokers to get screened. Lee, a retired lawyer living in Fremont, Calif., used to drive past it on her way to work.

"The thing that caught my attention was the fact that it was an African American female on the front," she recalls.

She eventually got the low-dose CT scan recommended for current and former smokers. When doctors found an early, but dangerous, tumor, Lee cried and panicked. Her mother had cared for her father, who'd died of prostate cancer. "My biggest concern was telling my mom," she says.

But that was six years ago, and Lee is cancer free today. Surgery removed the 2-inch tumor in her lung, then new treatments also boosted her immune system, fighting off any recurrence.

Lung cancer remains the most lethal form of the disease, killing about 135,000 Americans a year – more than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined – which is why many people still think of a diagnosis as synonymous with a death sentence. But with new treatments and technology, the survival rates from lung cancer are dramatically improving, allowing some patients with relatively late-stage cancers to live for years longer.

"If you're gonna have lung cancer, now is a good time," Lee says of the advances that saved her.

Denise Lee has been cancer-free for six years. She says she's grateful she got screened and caught her lung cancer early enough that treatment has been effective.
/ Denise Lee
Denise Lee
Denise Lee has been cancer-free for six years. She says she's grateful she got screened and caught her lung cancer early enough that treatment has been effective.

The key breakthrough, says Robert Winn, a lung cancer specialist at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the ability to better pinpoint the mutations of a patient's particular form of cancer. In the past, treatments were blunt tools that caused lots of collateral damage to healthy parts of the body while treating cancer.

"We've gone from that to molecular characterization of your lung cancer, and it has been a game changer," Winn says. "This is where science and innovation has an impact."

One of those game-changing treatments is called targeted therapy. Scientists identify genetic biomarkers in the mutated cancer cells to target and then deliver drugs that attack those targets, shrinking tumors.

Another is immunotherapy, usually taken as a pill, which stimulates the body's own defense system to identify foreign cells, then uses the immune system's own power to fight the cancer as if it were a virus.

As scientists identify new cancer genes, they're creating an ever-broader array of these drugs.

Combined, these treatments have helped increase nationalsurvival rates by 22% in the past five years – a rapid improvement over a relatively short time, despite the fact that screening rates are very slow to increase. Winn says as these treatments get cheaper and readily available, the benefits are even reaching rural and Black populations with historic challenges accessing health care.

The most remarkable thing about the drugs is their ability to, in some cases, reverse late-stage cancers. Chi-Fu Jeffrey Yang, a thoracic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and faculty at Harvard Medical School, recalls seeing scans where large dark shadows of tumor would disappear: "It was remarkable to see the lung cancer completely melting away."

To Yang, such progress feels personal. He lost his beloved grandfather to the disease when Yang was in college. If he were diagnosed today, he might still be alive.

"Helping to take care of him was a big reason why I wanted to be a doctor," Yang says.

But the work of combating lung cancer is far from over; further progress in lung cancer survival hinges largely on getting more people screened.

Low-dose CT scans are recommended annually for those over 50 who smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 20 years. But nationally,only 4.5% of those eligible get those scans, compared to rates ofmore than 75% for mammograms.

Andrea McKee, a radiation oncologist and spokesperson for the American Lung Association, says part of the problem is that lung cancer is associated with the stigma of smoking. Patients often blame themselves for the disease, saying: "'I know I did this to myself. And so I don't I don't think I deserve to get screened.'"

McKee says that's a challenge unique to lung cancer. "And it just boggles my mind when I hear that, because, of course, nobody deserves to die of lung cancer."

Denise Lee acknowledges that fear. "I was afraid of what they would find," she admits. But she urges friends and family to get yearly scans, anyway.

"I'm just so grateful that my diagnosis was early because then I had options," she says. "I could have surgery, I could have chemotherapy, I could be a part of a clinical trial."

And all of that saved her life.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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