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South Jersey Docs: What You Should Know About Lung Cancer
What you need to know about lung cancer
By Elyse Notarianni

While it may not be the most talked about cancer, lung cancer is actually the leading cause of US cancer deaths and the second most diagnosed type of cancer. It’s a diagnosis that scares a lot of people, but the statistics don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Advancements in both the detection of the disease and new treatment methods today offer a far more promising picture. Patients should be encouraged knowing that lung cancer, when it is caught early enough, is highly treatable. This is why doctors can’t stress early detection enough, says David Shersher, MD, thoracic surgeon at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper.

“Lung cancer can sneak up on you, developing long before symptoms start,” says Shersher. “But with the advancements we’ve made in the last 10 years, we’re now able to treat it long before it turns deadly.”

Here are a few facts you should know about lung cancer.

Fear of finding out can kill you

In the past, by the time people were diagnosed with lung cancer, their chances of living with the disease for more than a few years were low. But medical advancements mean doctors can now shoot for long-term management and – possibly – a cure.

David Shersher, MD

“Most people come to their diagnosis thinking life is going to end,” says Shersher. “It’s scary to hear, and chest procedures in general are really frightening. A lot of my job is to do counseling and try to ease people’s fear of lung cancer itself.”

When he talks to patients for the first time, he has 2 main messages: 1. They have a disease that is potentially deadly. 2. If caught early and treated appropriately, it can be cured.

In fact, his patients are often surprised to find that, when the cancer is caught before it spreads to other parts of the body, they can come into the hospital for surgery and be cancer-free and back to normal activities within a week. Early intervention makes a huge difference.

“What’s scary to me as a thoracic surgeon right now is that studies have shown there were 25 percent fewer diagnosed cancers in 2020 than years prior,” he says. “That’s not because there’s less cancer – it’s because people are still afraid of contracting Covid in the hospital. But a year into this, hospitals have enough procedures in place to make sure you’re safe from the virus.”

 

Screenings are critical, but not for everyone

When people hear cancer screening, mammograms or colonoscopies usually come to mind. Lung cancer screenings are just as crucial, but not everyone needs to get them, says Stephen Wallace, MD, a hematology and oncology specialist at Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA) in Moorestown.

Stephen Wallace, MD

People 50 and older with a 20-year smoking history should get regular screenings, Wallace says. Until recently, the screenings were recommended for people ages 55 and over with a 30-year smoking history.

The new criteria, he explains, is highly welcomed as it’s expected to save lives. Nearly twice as many people are now eligible to be screened as in the past. “Early detection is even more important because symptoms aren’t always a clear-cut sign that a patient has lung cancer,” says Wallace. “People can develop a cough that they just can’t seem to shake, weight loss, pain, headaches – things that are easy to write off.”

A low-dose CT scan can effectively catch even the earliest signs of lung cancer without damaging the body with high levels of radiation.

 

Treatment options have vastly expanded

Chemotherapy and radiation are often the first treatments that come to mind when patients think of cancer, but advancements in lung cancer research have led to new techniques that are less invasive and often bring about better outcomes, says Charles Sheih, MD, thoracic surgeon at Inspira Mullica Hill.

“As a patient, the prospect of having to go under a knife for any reason is difficult,” says Sheih. “But telling them the procedure can be minimally invasive and they will be spending less time in the hospital takes away some of that fear.”

Doctors now have a number of treatment alternatives to chemotherapy, radiation and major surgery, including non- and minimally invasive surgeries and robot-assisted procedures. Some cancers also respond well to immunotherapy, which rewires your body’s immune system to fight the cancer itself.

Charles Sheih, MD

Sheih says he often uses a combination of different treatment methods to attack the cancer from multiple angles. These approaches can often lead to better results and even cut recovery time in half, he says.

“In fact, the vast majority of patients don’t need to go to a formal rehab facility after surgery,” says Sheih, who specializes in non-invasive surgery. “For the most part, patients go home with simple breathing exercises for their rehab.”

Many patients, especially those with more advanced lung cancer diagnosis, still may have to undergo major surgery, says Sheih, but now doctors have the techniques to avoid these extensive procedures whenever possible.

“If we don’t have to perform surgery, we won’t,” he says. “And if we do, we’ll explore all of our options, including doing the surgery with very small incisions thoracoscopically or robotically.”

 

Go with what the experts know

All 3 cancer physicians agree that early detection is key. “What people often don’t understand is that lung cancer can be a silent killer,” says RCCA’s Wallace. “If caught early, lung cancer is actually very treatable. Especially with stage 1 or 2 lung cancer, there is often an excellent chance of a cure. But if you wait until you have a symptom, you’ve lost a lot of valuable time.”

April 2021
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