Young People Get Lung Cancer, Really!
In an article by Anita T. Shafer on March 23, 2016, she asked, “Can a physically fit twenty-something who never smoked a cigarette get lethal lung cancer?” You may be surprised to know that the answer is “yes.” Unfortunately, doctors don’t know how or why. Upstage Lung Cancer continues for the seventh year to join forces with Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute (ALCMI) and GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer (GO2 Foundation). Proceeds from our concerts help to support research to help find answers to these questions.
Unraveling genetic reasons for lung cancer striking people under 40 is one of the research passions for Bonnie and Tony Addario. Bonnie’s own battle with lung cancer began when she was in her 50s, and she proceeded to form her foundation in 2006. A distraught mother contacted Bonnie, searching for help for her 21-year-old daughter, recently diagnosed with lung cancer. Jill Costello was a member of her college rowing team and had never smoked, yet she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She died just one year later in June 2010, shortly after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley and leading its women’s rowing team to PAC-10 and NCAA championships.
Learning of Jill’s story, Bonnie assembled a network of the world’s top lung cancer researchers to ask “why?” It was clear that young people diagnosed with lung cancer had not been previously considered. “We did everything we could for Jill,” Addario recalls. “We literally reached out to everyone in the United States and around the world and nobody had any answers.”
Now, it’s fifteen years later.
Here are some statistics about young lung cancer:
- According to the American Cancer Society, the average age of people diagnosed with lung cancer in the United States is around 70.
- Between 1.2 to 6.2 percent of cases are found in people under age 40, but a small percentage adds up to large numbers. 3776-14,000 of younger people are diagnosed each year.
- Stage at diagnosis tends to be later, Stage 4, due to delayed consideration of lung cancer being a possible diagnosis in younger people.
- They tend to be never smokers.
- Despite being diagnosed at a later stage, younger people tend to fare better than older patients, although study results vary.
- Young adults with lung cancer are more likely to have an EGFR mutation. Targeted therapies are now available that address this mutation and can result in prolonged progression-free survival for many people.
The importance of this last point is that within the past decade, biomarker testing has grown in sensitivity and importance for treating cancer patients with targeted therapies. By knowing a patient’s mutation, a drug that directly targets that mutation can extend and save lives.
In Upstage Lung Cancer’s recent Backstage @ Upstage podcast Tony Addario, Founder and President of ALCMI discussed the Genomics of Young Lung Cancer, a global research project looking at possible biomarkers in younger patients. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Barbara Gitlitz said that nearly 84 percent of patients diagnosed with lung adenocarcinoma at an early age had genetic mutations that made them potential candidates for targeted therapies. These treatments weren’t available at the time of Jill Costello’s diagnosis.
Corey Wood was another guest on this podcast. She had been a college student, marathon runner, and successful mountain climber and was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer at 22, with an unusual symptom—a flash in her right eye. It turned out that this was caused by metastases of her lung cancer. Thankfully, Foundation One Testing showed that she had a rare biomarker, ROS1. Now there are more drugs targeting more mutations. The road hasn’t been easy for Corey, but she is an inspiration to all who live with lung cancer to not give up hope. Seven years after diagnosis, she lives her life to the fullest.
Upstage Lung Cancer supports a new research initiative from ALCMI that launches this year. Epidemiology of Young Lung Cancer (EoYLC), is a collaboration between ALCMI and GO2 Foundation, and seeks to pinpoint risk factors leading to a lung cancer diagnosis in young people. The study looks at environmental and childhood exposures and other potential risk factors that researchers hope will crack the code on lung cancer in those diagnosed under age 40.
“We’re in a race to figure out this disease so that the next generation doesn’t get it,” says Emily Bennett Taylor, a Stage IV lung cancer survivor diagnosed at age 28. Upstage Lung Cancer is proud to have supported the initial Genomics of Young Lung Cancer study for the past six years, and to continue its support of the EoYLC study.
Added thanks to Susan Smedley, National Manager, Community Fundraising and Endurance Events Go2, ALCMI