By Christina S. Baik, MD, MPH
Assistant Professor, University of Washington School of Medicine
Assistant Member, Clinical Research Division, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Facing a lung cancer diagnosis? It is important to know the details of the disease and what treatment options are available. Make sure you understand the specific cancer, its stage, and its type. When evaluating treatment options, ask about the common side effects and benefits of each treatment and have a conversation with your physician about what you feel is worthwhile. Below is a summary of recent treatment advancements that you may consider discussing with your care team.
Targeted therapies are newer cancer treatments that target a gene or protein responsible for allowing cancer to grow. Targeted drugs work differently than standard chemotherapy drugs, which affect both cancer and normal cells. For this reason targeted therapies often have different side effects, which may be less severe. This form of treatment is most often used in advanced and recurrent lung cancers, usually alone but sometimes in combination with chemotherapy.
Another advance in the treatment of lung cancer is the ability to do comprehensive genetic testing of the tumor. For example, the researchers at UW Medicine developed a test called UW-OncoPlex, which is an advanced gene sequencing test that enables oncologists to identify genetic mutations found in some lung cancers. These mutations drive the growth of tumors on the molecular level. The test ultimately allows doctors to choose the appropriate targeted therapy that matches the genetic mutations of an individual’s tumor.
Immunotherapy is another great up-and-coming treatment for lung cancer. It is offered through clinical trials, and the drugs work by stimulating the patient’s immune system in hopes of fighting off cancer. It is showing very promising outcomes.
Proton therapy is a type of radiation therapy. What makes it different than conventional radiation therapy is that it is targeted: it delivers less radiation to the spinal cord, heart, and healthy part of the lungs. Proton therapy is an excellent choice for effectively treating cancer while protecting surrounding healthy tissue. There are specific situations when proton therapy may be more beneficial than conventional therapy, so ask your oncologist whether this would be right for you.
Although not new, chemotherapy (chemo) makes up the backbone of anticancer treatment. Chemotherapy drugs are usually injected into a patient’s vein, entering the bloodstream and traveling throughout the body. Sometimes chemo is prescribed in addition to radiation therapy. Different chemotherapies can have different side effects, so make sure you are familiar with the common side effects before you start treatment.
Christina S. Baik, MD, MPH, treats patients who have lung and head and neck cancers. She is also involved in lung cancer prevention research. She believes that the best cancer treatment decision stems from active collaboration with patients and their families, by understanding their values and priorities. Dr. Baik also believes in the importance of extending care to the community by better understanding cancer risk factors and developing prevention strategies for those at risk; she is especially interested in identifying risk factors that predict lung cancer development among people who never smoked, as well as strategies to prevent lung cancer among former smokers. In addition, Dr. Baik is involved in biomarker projects whose goal is to develop blood tests to identify lung cancer when it is curable. In her lifetime as a physician, Dr. Baik hopes medicine will be able to identify those who are at high risk for lung cancer among “never-smokers” so that appropriate prevention strategies may be implemented. She also hopes that we will be able to detect the majority of lung cancers at their early, curable stages by establishing effective early-detection strategies. Outside of work, Dr. Baik enjoys hiking and exploring the outdoors with her husband.
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