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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Lung Cancer Death Rate Drops, But Nearly 2,800 Wisconsinites May Die From The Disease This Year

Courtesy of American Lung Association
Death rates are down for lung cancer, in part because of new medication that appears to do a better job of targeting cancer cells.

The American Lung Association (ALA) says lung cancer death rates are down nearly 12% in the last five years. Despite that, lung cancer remains the number one type of cancer that causes deaths.   

There are both life-saving developments and remaining challenges.

The Lung Association estimates that in Wisconsin, 4,150 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year — and nearly 2,800 will pass away.

Smoking is the top cause of the disease. But there are other potential triggers as well, like air pollution.

Credit Courtesy of Lisa Przybyla.
Lung cancer patient Lisa Przybyla, of New Berlin.

For New Berlin resident Lisa Przybyla though, it was a gene mutation that led to her being diagnosed 27 months ago with an advanced form of non-small cell lung cancer — the most common type of lung cancer. Przybyla says the diagnosis helped her understand some symptoms she had developed.  

"Initially, shoulder pain. Then I had back pain. I had shortness of breath. It just kept progressing to different symptoms," Przybyla says.

But Przybyla's doctors got her into the latter stages of a trial of a drug called alectinib. It has now been FDA approved for initial therapy. She says the medication, which is targeted to her gene mutation, has been a big plus.

"It basically gave me back my life — I can live normally. Right now, I have no active cancer. It doesn't kill the cancer cells. It's been described to me as puts them kind of to sleep, makes them inactive. So basically, your tumors shrink or disappear," Przybyla says.

"It basically gave me back my life — I can live normally." - Lisa Przybyla

Przybyla cautions there can be some side effects like short-term memory loss, and so, she no longer works.  She also says doctors have informed her that alectinib potentially starts losing its effectiveness after about 36 months. 

Medical College of Wisconsin Radiation Oncology professor Elizabeth Gore says it's fascinating how quickly some cancer-fighting drugs are being developed and tested. She hopes more patients can get into clinical trials. But Gore says some of the meds may not prove durable, due to the nature of lung cancer.

Credit Courtesy of Medical College of Wisconsin
Dr. Elizabeth Gore, of the Medical College of Wisconsin, and V.A. Medical Center.

“The tumors themselves are very complex. So, a target may not address all of the cancer cells, or some of the cells may mutate and then grow outside of the control of the different agents," Gore explains.

Gore is also chief of radiation oncology at the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center. So, she's also a big proponent of early testing for lung cancer through CT scans of the chest that use a low dose of radiation. Gore especially hopes high-risk people like current or former heavy smokers will overcome their reluctance to be checked. 

“There's a lot of fear. Patients don't want to know. When people get into screening programs, they also should be given resources to quit smoking, and that can be intimidating as well if people are committed to their smoking," Gore says.

The ALA says people diagnosed at early stages of lung cancer are four times more likely to survive five years, but that currently only 16% of cases are diagnosed early. 

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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