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 (ALK).
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.
Learn more about ALK positive lung cancer in this intro video from Hope with Answers. Our intro series provides basic information for those newly diagnosed with lung cancer. In this video, Patient and Advocate Shelly Engfer-Triebenbach speaks with researcher Dr. Alice Shaw from Massachusetts General Hospital about ALK positive lung cancer.
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. This process is known as biomarker 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.
Liquid biopsies are simple blood tests that look for circulating cancer cells in your bloodstream. These blood tests are showing promise as less-invasive tests for various points along a lung cancer journey. Currently, liquid biopsies are not used to diagnose lung cancer, but researchers are working to find diagnostic tools, including liquid biopsies, to detect lung cancer in a non-invasive way. Currently, the best way is to test lung cancer is from a biopsy.
Want to know more information about biomarkers for ALK positive lung cancer? Watch the next Hope With Answers video to learn more about which targeted therapies, immunotherapies, or combination therapies are effective in treating ALK+ lung cancer.
In the In-Depth Hope With Answers video, Dr Alice Shaw discusses ALK positive lung cancer and options for treatment beyond the initial Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (TKIs) with patient advocate Shelly Engfer-Triebenbach. Hope with Answers’ in-depth video series provides the deepest level of information for patients to understand treatment options, particularly if they’ve experienced resistance or if their lung cancer has progressed.
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 “Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (TKI)” or “ALK inhibitors.” These drugs 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 researchers develop new and improved drugs all the time.
Newer generation ALK inhibitors can overcome this resistance and re-establish the effectiveness of treatment. Other treatment options include:
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 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.
Here are 2 ways to find clinical trials – working with your doctor, you might get a jump on a new and better treatment even before it is available to others. This can accelerate medical breakthroughs for everyone and helps to increase EGFR positive lung cancer life expectancy.
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FDA-approved treatments for ALK
ALK Targeted Therapies Are Rapidly Expanding
“The field has moved very, very quickly the last ten years, so we actually have numerous different ALK targeted therapies, which is great news for patients.”
~ Dr. Alice Shaw, Massachusetts General Hospital