The burden of cancer continues to grow globally leading to more than 9.6 million deaths every year. Lung cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death worldwide, accounting for 1.80 million deaths in 2020 alone. In India too, the burden of lung cancer is enormous and contributed to 72,510 new cases and over 66,000 deaths in 2020. Estimates from the National Cancer Registry Programme show a steep rise in lung cancer cases to over 111,000 by 2025.
Lung cancer is mainly classified into two types of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC; 85 per cent cases) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC; 15 per cent cases). The survival rates for lung cancer are poor with only 31 out of every 100 people treated for NSCLC surviving for more than three years. Effective treatment is also hampered by the fact that several cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage.
In addition to smoking, some of the risk factors for lung cancer include indoor air pollution, occupational exposure to carcinogens (e.g. asbestos). The symptoms of lung cancer may not be evident until the cancer is in its advanced stage. Some of the common symptoms are breathlessness, hoarseness, unexplained weight loss, coughing with blood, headache and bone pain. Some ways in which you can reduce risk include avoiding smoking, preventing exposure to passive smoking, and opting out of work environments that contain carcinogens. Early diagnosis and management of the disease can help save lives.
Each case of lung cancer is unique, and the treatment depends upon its stage (i.e. its spread) and the other medical conditions of the patients. Traditionally, lung cancer is treated with either surgery, chemotherapy (medicines), radiation therapy or a combination of these. Moreover, the adverse effects of these treatments not only impact a patient’s physical and mental health but also the overall quality of life. Despite many technological advances in its diagnosis and treatment, survival rates remain dismal. Patients need innovative therapies that offer long-term disease control with minimal adverse events.
Immunotherapy as a breakthrough treatment option
For decades, researchers have studied the role of the immune system in treating and preventing cancer. The role of immunotherapy in lung cancer treatment is now giving new hope to millions of people across the world. Immunotherapy boosts our immune system to fight cancer better.
Our immune system protects us from harmful foreign agents like bacteria and viruses. It also identifies and destroys abnormal cells, including cancerous ones. In lung cancer, cancer cells trick the immune system and prevent it from harming them. Immunotherapy has been a game-changer as these drugs help the patient’s immune system identify and destroy the lung cancer cells. Moreover, immunotherapy is targeted toward cancer cells alone, unlike conventional chemotherapy or radiation therapy which affects healthy cells too.
Immunotherapy for lung cancer is normally given as an intravenous infusion. These drugs work for patients with both early and advanced-stage lung cancer and the duration of treatment depends on the patient’s profile. It may be given either alone or in combination with conventional treatment options. Being a specialised treatment, immunotherapy may not be the correct choice for all patients with lung cancer. Hence, consulting a specialist to confirm if you are the right candidate is a very important part of the treatment process.
The first immunotherapy drug for lung cancer was approved in 2015. Since then this novel therapy has changed the course of lung cancer treatment. If you or your loved one is suffering from lung cancer, reach out to your oncologist to check if immunotherapy is the right treatment for you.
The author is HOD Medical Oncology, ESIC Medical College, Faridabad. Views are personal.