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Lung Cancer: Cutting-Edge Treatments

Learn about some of the latest therapies developed to treat lung cancer -- and raise survival rates.
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WebMD Feature

Recent advances in diagnostics and therapy are raising survival rates of those diagnosed with lung cancer, with more exciting developments on the horizon.

One such recent advance involves giving chemotherapy after the surgical removal of a tumor.

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Lung Cancer Treatment

As far as treatment goes, if the lung cancer can be successfully removed with surgery, the patient has an excellent chance of surviving at least one year, and usually a better than 50% chance of living for five years or more after that. The challenge is detecting lung cancer early enough to make surgery possible.

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"Two years ago, we didn't recommend the therapy because we had just preliminary data that it might be helpful, but not enough information to make it a generally accepted recommendation," says James Rigas, MD, director of the Comprehensive Thoracic Oncology Program at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, N.H.

But in 2004 two studies showed big improvements in survival for patients who got chemotherapy over those who didn't. Here were the conclusive data that doctors had been hoping for.

How good was the news? One study by the National Cancer Institute of Canada showed that, of those who received a two-drug chemo combination, 15% more lived five years or more after their surgery, while a U.S. study showed a 12% increase in survival rates.

The chemotherapy drugs used in these studies are not new, yet with these study results doctors now have better knowledge of how to work with what's available, meaning many people may live longer without a relapse or spread of their cancer.

"I think we're going to be seeing a lot more trials to try to improve upon the fact that we know treatment helps," Rigas tells WebMD.

Targeted Treatment for Lung Cancer

Nearly 60% of all people with lung cancer die within a year of their diagnosis and an estimated 164,000 Americans -- most of them smokers or ex-smokers -- are diagnosed each year.

Fortunately, an important development in treating advanced lung cancer was announced last year.

In a large study, people taking a drug called Avastin, together with chemotherapy, lived an average of two months longer than those taking chemo alone -- a big improvement for people with a disease that can kill so quickly.

Avastin is a "targeted" treatment, meaning it more specifically targets cancer cells over normal cells. It works by disrupting the cancer cells' ability to form new blood vessels, which a tumor needs to grow.

And, in addition to hopefully improving treatment, targeted drugs often decrease side effects.

Now researchers hope Avastin plus chemotherapy might cure people with early-stage lung cancer. "If this gives us the same kind of benefit in advanced disease, which I think it probably will, this will be probably one of the biggest life-savers for lung cancer," Rigas says.

Another targeted treatment -- approved for lung cancer in 2004 -- is Tarceva, which targets a protein found on cancer cells that helps them multiply.

This drug was tested as a sole treatment on people with late-stage lung cancer who had not done well with chemotherapy. On average, those taking Tarceva lived two months longer than those taking a placebo, and also found an easing of symptoms.

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