What is ALK-positive lung cancer? And what are the options for treatment?

ALK positive (anaplastic lymphoma kinase positive, or ALK+) lung cancer occurs in 1 out of 25 non-small-cell lung cancer patients (NSCLC — the most common type of lung cancer). Younger patients — usually 55 and under — who have never smoked are most likely to be diagnosed as being ALK+.

To learn more about what an ALK+ diagnosis means for your lungs and your treatment, read on for our guide to anaplastic lymphoma kinase.

How the ALK mutation works

The ALK mutation is a genetic alteration of your lung cells’ DNA that causes these cells to grow abnormally and ultimately behave as cancer cells. As these cancer cells begin to grow in your lung, they can potentially spread to other parts of your body.

Among the many different mutations that can drive cancer to grow, the ALK mutation is one of the more treatable as it often responds dramatically to targeted therapy.

Testing for ALK+ mutation

To find out if your lung cancer has this ALK+ mutation, you will need to have a sample of your cancer analyzed in a laboratory (via a process known as molecular testing). To obtain a sample of the cancer, it is necessary to have a biopsy, typically obtained either with a needle or a small surgical procedure.

It’s an exciting development in the fight against cancer that we are now just beginning to get this information from a simple blood test that looks for circulating cancer cells in your bloodstream. However, this is still somewhat experimental, so the current best way is to test the cancer is from a biopsy.

What are the treatment options?

Once it is confirmed that your lung cancer tests positive for the ALK mutation, there are many treatment options in addition to targeted therapy. If your lung cancer hasn’t yet spread and it’s in an early stage, you might be a candidate for surgery to have the lung cancer completely removed. If not, there are drugs known as “ALK inhibitors” which target your ALK+ mutation and stop your cancer from growing and spreading.

ALK inhibitors have been very successful and can be effective for months and often years. However, eventually most of these drugs stop working because the cancer cells develop resistance and can start growing again. The good news is that new and improved drugs are being developed all the time.

Newer generation ALK inhibitors can overcome this resistance and re-establish the effectiveness of treatment. Other treatment options include:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Traditional chemotherapy
  • Potentially Immunotherapy (aka using your own immune system) to battle your lung cancer
  • Targeted Therapies

What is targeted therapy?

Because cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells uncontrollably divide before invading and destroying surrounding normal tissue and organs, targeted therapy medications were developed to find these specific cells and block them from growing.

These medications can not only stop the cells from growing, but they can also shrink lung cancer wherever it is found, even if it has spread to the lymph nodes, bones, adrenal glands or brain.

The beauty of this typically oral medication is that it targets only the cancer cells and not the normal cells in your body as is seen with traditional chemotherapy. The side effects are therefore limited and manageable. Conditions such as anemia (low red blood cell count) or difficulty fighting off infections (low white blood cell count) are typically avoided with targeted therapies.

The bottom line is there is great hope when you are diagnosed with having ALK+ lung cancer. There are many effective treatment options and even if you are never cured, you can successfully manage this disease.

What’s Next?

Follow the hopeful stories of ALK+ NSLC Survivors Laura Greco, Missy Petersen, Juanita Segura, and Michael Weitz.

Stand with survivors and help fund lung cancer research.