Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, but a study found that mortality rates have plummeted since recent advances in treatment giving newfound hope to a subset of cancer patients.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute found that deaths from non-small cell lung cancer decreased among men 3.2% annually from 2006 to 2013, and among women 2.3% annually from 2006 to 2014, according to the study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Death rates also began to decline at a faster rate for both men and women – at 6.5% annually for men from 2013 to 2016 and 5.9% annually for women from 2014 through 2016.
Not only did lung cancer mortality decrease, but it did so at a faster rate than diagnosis. The discovery led researchers to believe recently approved treatments may explain the declining death rates.
“This analysis shows for the first time that nationwide mortality rates for the most common category of lung cancer … are declining faster than its incidence, an advance that correlates with the approval of several targeted therapies for this cancer in recent years,” said Dr. Douglas R. Lowy, NCI deputy director and co-author of this study.
Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for 76% of lung cancer in the U.S., according to the study. In the last decades, new treatments for NSCLC have become available, including target genetic changes as well as immune checkpoint inhibitors that help the immune system attack the cancer.
During the time of the study, there weren’t as many advanced treatments for small cell lung cancer, which accounts for about 13% of lung cancer in the U.S. NCI researchers found SCLC mortality decreased at the same rate of incidence.
At first, study researchers thought the decrease in lung cancer mortality may have been related to lung cancer screenings. However, they found that screening rates have remained relatively low and stable throughout the years, which further bolstered their argument that study results were due in large part to the improvement in treatment and reductions in smoking.
People ‘afraid to go to doctors’: A third of Americans miss cancer screenings, survey suggests
People living with CLL should work with their doctors to know the next step that's right for them.
Are Pap smears ‘obsolete’?: There’s a better option for cervical cancer screening, American Cancer Society says
“Survival for Stage 4 was between nine months to a year,” said Dr. Anne Tsao, section chief of the Thoracic Head and Neck Medical Oncology department at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Nowadays if we determine their genetic mutation, they can have targeted therapy and can be alive for years.”
Experts also were impressed with the methodology of the study. Instead of just relying on death records, researchers cross referenced certificates with the NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) cancer registry program.
Nadia Howlader, study lead with NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, said death certificates can sometimes be inaccurate because physicians can list the cause of death as lung cancer when in reality the cancer may have metastasized in the lung but was primarily diagnosed as a different kind of cancer. Researchers found more than 11,000 deaths were wrongly attributed to lung cancer.
Tsao said the accuracy of the study combined with its optimistic results means there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for lung cancer patients.
“There is hope,” Tsao said. “We are making advancements so quickly. We can do things today that we couldn’t do three or four or five years ago.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.