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Q&A: Advancements in the Fight Against Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the United States.

In fact, in 2012 lung cancer was the most common type of cancer death among Pennsylvania residents—accounting for about 27 percent of all cancer deaths.

The good news? Lung cancer survival rates are edging upward due to better diagnostic tools such as DNA testing, targeted therapies, and new technologies. David O. Wilson, MD, MPH, of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center discusses how personalized medicine is transforming the way lung cancer is diagnosed and treated.

Learn more about the lung cancer program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. 

Q. What’s changing in the world of lung cancer?

One of the biggest advancements in lung cancer treatment is the ability for doctors to conduct genomic testing on each person’s tumor to see if any genetic mutations or changes are linked to their cancer.

Genomic testing involves taking a sample of tissue from the tumor to analyze it on a molecular level. This testing can help determine which therapies will provide the best benefit because certain types of chemotherapy drugs may be more effective in treating specific mutations.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is one of only 16 leading cancer centers across the country participating in the largest national initiative to examine non-small cell lung cancer tumors and match patients to the best possible therapies. Treating people with targeted therapies that are matched to their specific mutations is the essence of personalized medicine.

Another advancement is the advent of immunotherapy in the treatment of some kinds of non-small cell lung cancers. Immunotherapy is the use of medicines to jump-start the patient’s own immune system into recognizing and destroying cancer cells.

The main advancement in surgery for lung cancer is the use of video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), a minimally invasive procedure best suited to treat patients with early-stage disease. In traditional open surgery, or thoracotomy, the surgeon makes a six-inch incision in the chest and spreads the ribs apart to see inside the chest. VATS uses only a few small incisions, through which the surgeon inserts a tiny camera to see inside the chest and completes the procedure without spreading the ribs. The result is less scarring, blood loss, and pain, plus a quicker recovery time.

Q. What are the most important steps when seeking lung cancer treatment?

If you recently received a lung cancer diagnosis, I think the most important thing to do before you begin treatment is to seek care — or at least a second opinion — at a cancer center that can determine your genetic profile.

In addition, because new treatments for lung cancer are evolving at such a rapid pace, it is critical for you to be examined by a lung cancer specialist or thoracic oncologist at a high-volume center who sees many lung cancer cases every day and is up-to-date on the latest treatments and surgical techniques.

David O. Wilson, MD, MPH, is associate director of the Lung Cancer Center at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center