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Anti-cancer Pill Improves Survival in Lung Cancer Patients
When 36-year-old Brooke Jaeger's doctor diagnosed her with lung cancer four years ago, she could hardly believe it.
"I was probably the last person you'd expect to have lung cancer," she said. "I was a tennis player and a marathon runner, and I had never smoked in my entire life."
Brooke's first sign of trouble was a lump in her neck. A tissue biopsy and a battery of diagnostic tests revealed that she had non-small cell lung cancer.
Cancers of the lung generally are one of two types: small cell and non-small cell. Small-cell lung cancer occurs almost exclusively in smokers.
Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common form of the disease, accounting for more than 80 percent of all lung cancer cases. It is also a particularly aggressive cancer, with a five-year survival rate of less than 10 percent.
Following surgery to remove the bulk of the tumor in her lung, Brooke underwent chemotherapy and radiation. After an 18-month remission, she found a second lump in her neck, and testing revealed that the cancer had returned.
"The first round of chemotherapy and radiation was really hard for me," she said. "I just couldn't face the thought of going through those treatments again."
Brooke's doctor offered her the option of taking a new oral anti-cancer medication known as Tarceva. In 2004, the drug was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer. Unlike chemotherapy and radiation, the drug attacks and damages only cancerous cells, leaving normal, healthy cells unharmed.
According to cancer specialist Alan Sandler, M.D., medical director of thoracic oncology at Vanderbilt University, "Tarceva targets the DNA that is found only in cancer cells. Because it doesn't affect the other cells of the body, it is a much less toxic treatment, with far fewer side effects than chemotherapy or radiation."
While chemotherapy and radiation are notorious for causing hair loss, severe nausea and vomiting, and a greater susceptibility to infections, the most common side effects associated with Tarceva are rash and diarrhea. Even better, the drug has been shown to extend the lives of some cancer patients.
Tarceva is particularly effective in treating non-small cell lung cancers in patients who have never smoked, with a response rate approaching 80 percent.
"Studies show that patients taking Tarceva live longer than those taking placebo," said Sandler. "With this drug, we can now measure a patient's life expectancy in terms of years, instead of months."
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among American men and women. Each year in the United States, more people die of lung cancer than of cancer of the colon, breast, and prostate combined.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 200,000 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in 2007, and nearly 160,000 people will lose their lives to the disease. Sadly, most of the deaths are attributable to smoking, and could be prevented.
Tobacco smoke contains more than 3,500 chemicals, at least 40 of which are known carcinogens. The longer a person smokes, the greater the chance of developing lung cancer.
Not everyone who develops lung cancer is a smoker: About 12 percent of lung cancer cases in the U.S. occur in non-smokers. Among people who don't smoke, risk factors for lung cancer include a family history of the disease, exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, asbestos, and other industrial carcinogens.
"Lung cancer in people who have never smoked appears to be on the rise, especially in women," Sandler said. "We're not sure why this is happening, but we're searching for the answers, and we're working to develop better treatments."
For Brooke Jaeger, treatment with Tarceva has been especially beneficial. Within seven days of beginning the new medicine, she could no longer feel the tumor in her neck.
Now in her second year of treatment with the drug, she is cancer free. "Tarceva has put me back into remission, and is allowing me to live a normal life," she said. "I work a full-time job, I travel, and I'm even learning to surf."
Dr. Sandler is encouraged by the treatment effects of Tarceva in Brooke Jaeger, and in other patients with the disease.
"We're not curing lung cancer patients yet," he said, "but we're definitely beginning to see some major improvements."
Rallie McAllister, M.D., M.P.H., is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn., and author of "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her Web site is http://www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.