Learning about lung cancer can help us breathe easy

Do you know that smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer? Although smoking causes the majority of lung cancer cases, it is highly unfortunate that a self-inflicted stigma still surrounds being diagnosed with this disease. A large number of lung cancer patients are former smokers, and 15% are “never smokers”. Other causes of lung cancer may include asbestos, radon, occupational exposure to certain chemicals, air pollution, lung diseases, and having a family history of the disease.

According to the Canadian Cancer Statistics 2015 report – released by the Canadian Cancer Society, in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada – lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada due to its very low survival rate. In fact, it takes more Canadian lives than breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers combined.

Luckily, there are several ongoing efforts to tackle this major health challenge. To help prevent smoking, Bill 45 was passed earlier this year in Ontario. This landmark legislation bans the sale of all flavoured tobacco – including menthol – and regulates the sale, use, and promotion of e-cigarettes. The Canadian Cancer Society worked closely with multiple organizations for more than five years to achieve this goal.

The Society is also raising awareness on radon, the second leading cause of lung cancer. What is radon gas? Radon is a colourless and odourless gas naturally found in the environment that can enter a house through cracks and crevices. It is a contributing factor to an estimated 3,000 lung cancer associated deaths per year in Canada. Surprisingly, a 2014 survey revealed that 96% of Canadians have not tested their homes, even though an inexpensive test kit can be purchased at a local hardware store or a professional can be hired to perform the test.

In addition, several efforts are ongoing to try to improve the outcome for cancer patients diagnosed with lung cancer. Last November, Queen’s University announced that the NCIC Clinical Trials Group at its Cancer Research Institute will begin a major international clinical trial, supported by the Canadian Cancer Society, aimed at curing patients with the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The trial is currently recruiting up to 1,100 patients around the world, including Kingston, to test if a new drug can help the body’s immune system recognize and attack cancer in patients who have already received standard treatment.

Immunotherapy is a promising way to treat cancer and has had some initial success in treating skin cancers. The NCIC Clinical Trials Group is also leading another clinical trial looking to see whether reolysin, a cancer-fighting virus, can be given in combination with chemotherapy and whether it works better than chemotherapy alone for patients with advanced NSCLC. Reolysin is just one example of a virus that is being used to specifically target and kill cancer cells, while leaving normal cells unharmed.

The Canadian Cancer Society funds more lung cancer research than any other national charity, however, more work is needed to make an impact against this disease. By focusing on increased prevention efforts, and research related to early detection and better treatments, hopefully we can reduce the number of Canadians, smokers and non-smokers alike, who are affected by this disease.

This article was written by Mathieu J.F. Crupi, a PhD candidate from the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at the Queen’s University Cancer Research Institute, and a Canadian Cancer Society Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT) member.