The Changing Landscape of Lung Cancer Treatment

(BPT) - At age 64, Bob Carlson was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, and he felt the diagnosis was like “an expiration date being stamped on his life, like a milk carton,” and the time he had left “wasn’t nearly enough.” Bob, his wife, Julia, and doctors chose chemotherapy to combat his illness—but according to Bob, his quality of life after taking the treatments was non-existent.

Bob became so sick from the chemotherapy that he felt the treatments were almost worse than the disease itself. He talked to his doctor, who said there was nothing else they could do. Bob was on the verge of giving up hope when his physician sent him to a different research center. There, Bob met with another physician who presented him with a new option and renewed his fight.

Understanding the changing lung cancer treatment landscape

Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, representing approximately 13 percent of all cancer diagnoses. While a cure for lung cancer does not currently exist, cancer immunotherapy is changing the treatment landscape and improving the prognosis for many people with lung cancer. Several immunotherapy treatments are approved for lung cancer by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including some as a first-line treatment for advanced lung cancer patients.

Immunotherapy is widely considered to be the most promising new cancer treatment approach since the development of the first chemotherapies in the 1940s. Cancer immunotherapy treatments harness and enhance the innate powers of the immune system to fight cancer.

According to a report published in the Annals of Oncology by the Cancer Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of cancer immunotherapy research, there are over 2,004 immunotherapy agents in development with over sixty clinical trials evaluating immunotherapy combinations in lung cancer. There are 26 immunotherapies approved by the FDA, including six immunotherapy agents for the treatment of lung cancer.

“Today, the lung cancer space has the largest number of combination clinical trials underway, evaluating how two or more medications can work better when taken together. These trials hold much promise for patients, but there are still a lot of misperceptions surrounding clinical trials, with many people thinking that these studies are only an option after other treatments have failed,” said Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs at the Cancer Research Institute. “However, many of the clinical trials currently underway are evaluating immunotherapy treatments for front-line use.”

The Cancer Research Institute offers the Cancer Immunotherapy Clinical Trial Finder as a free resource to help patients match themselves with appropriate trials based on their specific cancer diagnosis, stage, and treatment history.

“We hope that the Clinical Trial Finder will help more people learn about potential clinical trial options earlier in their patient journey so that they might have better outcomes,” said Dr. O’Donnell-Tormey.

How a clinical trial made all the difference

In August 2013, Bob became the very last patient to enroll in a particular clinical trial for non-small cell lung cancer, evaluating a checkpoint inhibitor—a promising immunotherapy approach that works by “taking the brakes off” the immune system to allow it to mount a stronger and more effective attack against cancer.

Once he started the immunotherapy treatment in the clinical trial, Bob and his doctors realized in short order that the treatment was working. “We saw tumor reduction rather quickly—which was amazing. And to top it off, unlike chemotherapy, which involved lengthy infusions that took many hours and left me ill due to the side effects, the experience of having the immunotherapy treatment in this case only took about 30 minutes, and has very little impact on my quality of life. You take your medicine, and you go on with your life. I have had to make zero lifestyle changes,” said Bob.

Now, almost five years later, Bob and Julia are back pursuing their hobby of wildlife photography and travel. He is hopeful that more patients will benefit from emerging immunotherapy treatments—through new FDA-approved therapies and through clinical trial participation.

“My only wish is that I had known about the immunotherapy clinical trial sooner,” he continued. “And I hope that through continued research more immunotherapy treatments are discovered that work for all patients with all cancer types.”

There are many other cancer patients and survivors, like Bob, who have been given new hope thanks to cancer immunotherapy research and clinical trials. For more information on cancer immunotherapy and how to match with an open clinical trial, visit the Cancer Research Institute Cancer Immunotherapy Clinical Trial Finder at https://www.cancerresearch.org/patients/clinical-trials.

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