Earlier Lung Cancer Detection May Drive Lower Mortality

Jim Kling

December 30, 2021

In non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), earlier detection may be an under-appreciated factor in recent trends of declining mortality, according to a new analysis of data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registries published in JAMA Network Open. Between 2006 and 2016, a stage shift occurred with an increase in stage 1 and 2 diagnoses and a decrease in stage 3 and 4 diagnoses.

While targeted therapy and immunotherapy have rightfully been credited with improved NSCLC survival, the new results underline the importance of screening, according to study author Emanuela Taioli, MD, PhD, director of the Institute for Translational Epidemiology and the associate director for population science at the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai, New York.

She noted that the average survival for stage 1 or stage 2 patients was 57 months, but just 7 months when the stage diagnosis was 3 or 4. "So being diagnosed with stage 1 and 2 is a major driver of better survival," said Taioli in an interview.

The study included 312,382 individuals diagnosed with NSCLC (53.4% male; median age, 68). Incidence-based, 5-year mortality declined by 3.7% (95% confidence interval, 3.4%-4.1%). Stage 1 or 2 diagnoses increased from 26.5% to 31.2% of diagnoses between 2006 and 2016 (average annual percentage change, 1.5%; 95% CI, 0.5%-2.5%).

"Immunotherapy is a very exciting field. And it is an important contributor for people who have a disease that can be treated with immunotherapy, so that's why people focus on that. But if you can diagnose the cancer earlier, that's the best bet," Taioli said.

Unfortunately, many patients and physicians haven't received that message. Even though computed tomography lung cancer screening is covered by Medicare for current or former smokers, only about 7% of eligible patients undergo annual screening. Taioli said that a belief persists that lung cancer is so deadly that early detection isn't effective.

But advances in therapy and surgery have changed that outlook. "It's not true anymore. People don't know, and physicians are not educated to the idea that lung cancer can be diagnosed earlier and save lives," she said.

People who have quit smoking may be relatively easy to convince. "They made a big step, because quitting smoking is incredibly hard. I think they will be amenable to screening because they are in a phase [of life] in which they want to take care of themselves. The physician should really explain the benefits, and I don't think they do it very clearly now," Taioli said.

The study is limited by its retrospective nature, and it did not include information on diagnostic method or many NSCLC risk factors.

Taioli has no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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