This week the American Cancer Society announced that the United States had the largest one-year drop in cancer death rates in history in 2017. This statistic is largely driven by a considerable decrease in lung cancer mortality.

Lung cancer, which accounts for about a quarter of cancer deaths, was once seen as virtually untreatable. But dynamic improvements in diagnosis, medical interventions, and surgical techniques have allowed even late-stage patients to live for years after a diagnosis. Combined treatments, such as surgery and immunotherapy, have shown particularly promising results.

Elizabeth A. David, MD, associate professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine and a thoracic surgical oncologist at Keck Medicine of USC, was pleased to see the results, especially since Keck Medicine surgeons have been at the forefront of working with new techniques like robotic surgery and enhanced recovery pathways.

“Advances in lung cancer screening and systemic treatments, like molecularly-targeted and immunotherapy treatment, are also revolutionizing lung cancer care and improving survival,” David said.

Another factor in the decline in lung cancer deaths is a general decrease in smoking rates, though David cautioned against thinking of lung cancer as a consequence of smoking.

“An increasing number of lung cancer patients have never smoked a day in their lives,” she explained.

The stigma of smoking can also make patients reluctant to seek help.

“Even non-smokers worry about others seeing their cancer as something they brought on themselves,” David said. “We need to change the way people think about lung cancer, because early detection is crucial to a good outcome.”

 People should talk to their doctors if they experience:

  • A cough that won’t go away
  • Repeated, persistent lung infections
  • Pain that gets worse when coughing or laughing
  • Pain when breathing deeply
  • Unexplained fatigue or shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite

— Lex Davis