Thanks to New Science, Lung Cancer Patients Are Living Longer Than Ever

From Oprah Magazine, April, 2018:

The disease that used to be a death sentence isn’t necessarily so anymore. Some women are managing it—and even thriving.

Linnea OlsonWhen Linnea Olson was told in June 2008 that the cancer she’d been battling for three years had spread from one lung to the other, she began preparing to die.

Given just three to five months to live, the then-48-year-old artist and lifelong nonsmoker embarked on a “farewell tour,” saying goodbye to family and friends and arranging grief counseling for her youngest son (then 11). She wasn’t sure she’d live long enough to make it to her daughter’s wedding later that summer; when she did, she spent the day looking at her three children and thinking about how their lives would be after she was gone.

Then an oncologist tested Olson’s cancerous tissue for a specific genetic mutation whose presence enabled Olson to enroll in a clinical trial for a drug called crizotinib (brand name Xalkori). What happened next seemed nothing short of miraculous. “Within days, my constant coughing and shortness of breath were gone,” Olson says. Seven weeks later, every single one of the 33 tumors in her lungs had almost completely disappeared.

Olson, like up to 15 percent of Americans diagnosed with lung cancer, is a “never-smoker”—medical-speak for those who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime. Though exposure to air pollution, radon, and secondhand smoke are risk factors, science doesn’t yet know all the reasons why such patients are being diagnosed in increasing numbers, says Andrea McKee, MD, chairman of radiation oncology for Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Massachusetts and a scientific adviser for the American Lung Association. Still, oncologists are learning more every day. “We’re discovering how lung cancer behaves, how the cells differ between nonsmokers and smokers, and how we can use various genetic mutations to shape treatment,” McKee says.

One game-changing finding is what led to Olson’s reprieve: About 50 to 60 percent of never-smoking patients have one of many targetable mutations in their lung cancer cells that cause the cells to multiply and divide more quickly and aggressively, explains Olson’s oncologist, Alice Shaw, MD, PhD, director of thoracic oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital. (By comparison, about 20 percent of all lung cancer patients, regardless of smoking history, are thought to have such driver mutations. Women seem to be slightly more prone to them than men.) Over the past five years, Shaw says, it’s become standard practice for patients diagnosed with advanced lung cancer to have their tumors tested for these mutations, called oncogenes, which cause cancer when activated.

Learn more

Read Linnea’s advice on Dating with Lung Cancer