Who Are Lung Cancer's Victims?

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Dana Reeve, wife of the late actor Christopher Reeve, has died of lung cancer at age 44.

Reeve died on Monday night at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Medical Center, according to reports. She announced in August 2005 that she had lung cancer and that she had never smoked. The announcement came days after ABC News anchor Peter Jennings died of lung cancer.

Like her late husband, Reeve had been an activist for better paralysis treatments. Earlier in her career, she had performed on Broadway and on TV. Details about Reeve's lung cancer haven't been publicized.

About Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths for men and women alike.

The American Cancer Society predicts about 174,470 new cases of lung cancer in the U.S. in 2006. Lung cancer accounts for more than a quarter of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.

Smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer. But, as in Reeve's case, not all lung cancer patients are — or have ever been — smokers.

"We don't completely understand why they develop lung cancer," Jay Brooks, M.D., told WebMD when Reeve announced her diagnosis last summer. Brooks is chief of hematology and oncology at the Ochsner Clinic in Baton Rouge, La. He is also chief of staff at the Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge.

After Reeve's diagnosis, the American Cancer Society issued a news release with these facts:

  • Cigarette smoking causes an estimated 80 percent of women's lung cancers and 90 percent of men's lung cancers.
  • Environmental risk factors may include secondhand smoke, radon (a radioactive gas), asbestos, and certain chemicals and metals.
  • Genes could also play a role.
  • Fewer than 3 percent of lung cancers occur in people younger than 45.

    The most common type of lung cancer is non-small cell lung cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

    'Desperate Need' for Early Detection Tests

    Lung cancer often isn't diagnosed until its advanced stages, which is when it is hardest to defeat. In its early stages, lung cancer often has no symptoms. There is no routine screening test for early lung cancer, unlike mammography for breast cancer or colonoscopy for colon cancer.

    "We desperately need ways of detecting early lung cancers," Brooks told WebMD in August.

    Nearly 60 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer die within one year of their diagnosis and nearly 75% die within two years. "This has not improved in 10 years," according to the American Cancer Society.

    Chest X-rays haven't been shown to be completely beneficial in screening for early lung cancer, Brooks told WebMD. Brooks was awaiting results of a large study using CAT scans to take pictures of the lungs.

    "The problem with that is you're exposing yourself to radiation from CAT scans every year. Many times you will be finding things on the CAT scans that are abnormal but are not necessarily cancer, and they require additional follow-up," Brooks told WebMD after Jennings died of lung cancer.

    "It remains to be seen whether or not this will be helpful for the entire population before we make a statement about this. But it is being studied, it has been studied, and we're waiting for the results of that study to be completed ... hopefully within the next couple of years," Brooks said.

    Lung Cancer Treatments

    Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are three tools doctors use to treat lung cancer.

    "Lung cancer is treatable if it's caught early," Brooks told WebMD in August. "The best treatment for lung cancer is surgery. If it is not caught early, as it is, unfortunately, in two-thirds of patients, we have made some progress in terms of the use of chemotherapy ... and radiation."

    "There are some exciting new molecular-targeted drugs that are helpful, and we're understanding the molecular biology of lung cancer much better today in helping to design more rational treatments," Brooks said. "But unfortunately, the vast majority of people with lung cancer today will die from their disease."

    SOURCES: Associated Press. WebMD Medical News: "Screening, Treating, & Surviving Lung Cancer." http://www.webmd.com/content/article/109/109410.htm American Cancer Society: "What Are the Key Statistics for Lung Cancer?" National Cancer Institute: "What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer: Understanding Lung Cancer — Symptoms." WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding Lung Cancer." WebMD Medical News: "Peter Jennings Loses Battle With Lung Cancer." http://www.webmd.com/content/article/109/109379.htm


    Miranda Hitti
    Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
    © 2005, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved
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