Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer-related death in both men and women in the United States. And for America’s veterans, that risk is even higher as they are 25 percent more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than those who did not serve in the military.
As we recognize this year’s Veterans Day, Laurie Fenton Ambrose, President and CEO of Lung Cancer Alliance, explains how early detection and the treatment of lung cancer is evolving in and benefiting the veteran community, and what still needs to be done to improve the care for the men and women who have served our country.
Why are veterans disproportionately affected by lung cancer?
“Veterans are disproportionately affected for two key reasons: their smoking history and their occupational exposures. First, veterans have a higher prevalence of smoking than the civilian population. Many use smoking as a way to cope with the stress of their occupation and cigarettes were readily available to them while in service. At the same time, veterans were also exposed to a variety of chemicals that are linked with an increased risk of lung cancer, such as asbestos, Agent Orange, burn pits and chemical weapons.”
Why is treating veterans with lung cancer challenging?
“Research has shown that many Veterans’ Affairs facilities are not prepared to implement comprehensive lung cancer screening programs. More work needs to be done to support the investment in infrastructure and resources to offer more coordinated care to American veterans with lung cancer as quickly as possible.
We also need to address the stigma associated with having lung cancer—which affects how the disease is both resourced and advocated for — and the comorbidities that many veterans face in addition to lung cancer.”
How is Lung Cancer Alliance working to improve care for veterans with lung cancer?
“We are working with military facilities and programs to reduce tobacco use and exposure. We are also working on awareness campaigns to alert veterans to their elevated risk for lung cancer as well as directing them to responsible screening and care so that we catch and manage the disease early.”
Why is early detection so important?
“Because it can save your life. Just like other diseases with approved screenings, you see higher survival rates in those whose disease has been caught early by screening. Now lung cancer can join this fold. Simply put, if you find lung cancer in its earliest form, you improve your treatment options and your quality of life. But right now, approximately 75 percent of lung cancers in the general population are diagnosed at late stage when there are fewer effective treatment options.
We need to highlight the benefits of screening and make sure that it is made available to our veterans. Studies have shown that low-dose CT screenings can decrease lung cancer death rates if we provide adequate resources and infrastructure. It’s key that we make sure everyone at risk—including our military community—is aware that these screenings are available to them.”
We’re at a pivotal moment right now with lung cancer screening and treatment advances, and we are seeing more lung cancer survivors than ever.
How are the efforts to improve screenings going so far?
“Screening is a fairly new preventive service. The federal government gave a green light just four years ago for coverage. So, we are now working hard to “ramp-up” this service in communities across the country. This involves bringing national awareness to the issue as well as educating providers and those at risk of the benefits and risks. We are also committed to making sure screening and care is being provided in the most responsible way in medical centers and considering how we collect information to help further improve early detection and treatment options. It is not easy. It takes time. But we are focused on moving this forward as rapidly as possible.
The challenge I see is that there isn’t the same sense of urgency and focus around lung cancer screening as we have seen with other cancers such as breast and colon. That’s likely related to the stigma around this disease. We really need more national attention on this issue.”
How are new treatment options helping patients with lung cancer?
“New treatment options for patients with lung cancer are improving care and bringing hope. For example, we have more targeted therapies and immunotherapies being paired with chemotherapy to treat lung cancer today than we have had in decades.
When you combine these new therapies with the ability to detect lung cancer earlier, outcomes can be more favorable for early stage patients. This one-two punch is making a dent in the high mortality rates. We’re seeing five-year survival rates rise to 19 percent; a leap forward from where we were in the 1980s, when five-year survival was only 13 percent. We’re at a pivotal moment right now with lung cancer screening and treatment advances.”
What else should veterans know about lung cancer?
“No veteran should ever feel alone. We are ready to support them. That’s what Lung Cancer Alliance is here to do. Veterans should know that there’s a place where they can go to feel part of the community and find information. We are honoring their service by making sure our service is there for them.”
To learn more about how researchers are developing new treatments strategies for lung cancer, read “Hitting Moving Targets in Lung Cancer Subtypes.”