Lung cancer causes more deaths in the United States than any other form of cancer, killing eighty percent of those who get it and more than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. It takes more than 160,000 lives each year in the U.S. But, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Gielan, a new approach to fighting lung cancer appears to help at least some patients -- an approach apparently applicable to other forms of cancer, as well.
Ever since being diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer six years ago, Kate Robbins has been in the fight of her life.
"You become aware of how precious each day is," she says, "and how fortunate you are to be one of the lucky ones surviving."
Sig Adler wasn't as lucky, and died of lung cancer last November just eight months after his diagnosis.
His wife, Janice, remembers his courageous struggle. "They took some pictures," she says, "and the pictures showed that he had stage-four lung cancer, and that it had metastasized in his bone and his brain."
Robbins' cancer diagnosis came after she complained of serious headaches. Doctors found she had a brain tumor that had spread from her lung. When tumors showed up in her liver, doctors didn't give her much hope. "The message I got," she says, "was, 'Make your plans, get your life in order, and enjoy the next few months.' And I was enraged."
Robbins was determined to keep fighting, and doctors enrolled her in a clinical trial for a targeted therapy that prevents cancer cells from growing. Immediately, she had a stunning response. The tumors started to disappear. "I frankly felt it was a miracle," Robbins reflected.
The mystery was why? Why was it happening for Robbins?
Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston started investigating. They found that Robbins' cancer cells had a rare mutation. The new drug was able to target that mutation and kill the cancer cells.
"It was," says Dr. Lecia Sequist of Mass. General Hospital Cancer Center, "one of the first examples in cancer where we really understood what makes the cancer tick and at the same point how to turn it off."
Doctors soon started testing other newly-diagnosed lung cancer patients -- such as Greg Vrettos -- to see if they had the same type of mutation. Vrettos did, and doctors immediately enrolled him in a similar clinical trial.
"The tumors went away really quickly," he recalls, "to the point where they're really are not visible in the CAT scans, or very faintly."
Four years after his diagnosis of lung cancer, Vrettos is still going strong.
Sig Adler was never tested for that rare mutation. Now his wife, Janice, is helping to raise funds for cancer research in her husband's name. "A lung cancer in my husband is totally different from a lung cancer in the person standing next to him," she explained, "so a drug that can work on someone like Kate (Robbins) -- it's wonderful."
"I feel amazingly blessed," Robbins says, "that I can people out there hope."
On The Early Show Monday, Dr. Thomas Lynch, chief oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, who treated both Robbins and Vrettos, told co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez their cases illustrate it's "absolutely essential" and "critical" to effectively treat cancer patients to get the right drug for the right patient.
Without discovering their mutations, doctors wouldn't have known which drugs would work for Robbins and Vrettos. So, how do people know if they have those mutations?"
"One of the great things that's happening now," Lynch replied, "is, with our better understanding of genetics, understanding what drives cancers, we're able to look, and we're able to profile patients across a broad number of genetic changes. And that's really what's different about cancer therapy now. I think it's highly likely that, when a patient goes to see their doctor in two, three years, they'll have 40, 50, 60 genes analyzed, and we will select the right drug, based on what that genetic profile tells us. It's happening now, and it really has potential to change therapy in the future."
And it's not just lung cancer. There are other forms of cancer already being treated by targeted drugs. "We're beginning to expand this," Lynch says. "Probably the best example to start with is breast cancer. We learned, with breast cancer that if you're a woman who has the presence of something called the estrogen receptor, that a targeted drug for that would make a big difference. And now, there are a number of different cancers. It's still early. We're still learning which of these drugs to combine. But this offers extraordinary hope for patients.
So, Lynch added, "The first question (a cancer patient should ask his or her doctor) should be, 'Can you look for these genes in my cancer? Can you take my specimen and spend it to the molecular profiling lab and have them look for these specific genetic changes?' Much of this is being done in clinical trials, so it's still early in the evolution of this process, but it offers extraordinary hope."
Copyright 2008 CBS. All rights reserved.