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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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New Report On Smoking In Women Confirms That "Women Who Smoke Like Men Die Like Men"

by Dr. Len January 23, 2013

"You've come a long way baby!"

That slogan from decades ago now returns with a new meaning and a new vengeance, according to a study released today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The report, co-authored by Michael Thun, the recently retired vice president emeritus of the American Cancer Society along with colleagues from several outstanding institutions in the United States, shows clearly and unfortunately that women who are smokers are now neck and neck with men smokers when it comes to the relative risk of dying compared to non-smokers, whether it is from all causes, lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease (emphysema), and cardiovascular diseases including heart disease and stroke. (See below for an explanation of relative risk)

In a somewhat unvarnished tone, the authors write, "This finding is new and confirms the prediction that, in relative terms, 'women who smoke like men die like men.'" More...

Filed Under:

Lung Cancer | Prevention | Tobacco

New Lung Cancer Screening Guidelines From The American Cancer Society: What You Should Know

by Dr. Len January 10, 2013

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in this country. In 2012, the American Cancer Society estimates that there were about 226,000 people newly diganosed with lung cancer, and 160,000 deaths. If there is good news here-and unfortunately there isn't much good news when it comes to lung cancer-it is that deaths from this dreaded disease have been declining in men and women, since fewer people are smoking. But there is much we have to do to improve this picture.

That's one of the reasons the American Cancer Society is releasing new guidelines on screening for lung cancer. After carefully reviewing the available research, the Society has concluded that there is good evidence that lung cancer screening saves lives by reducing deaths from lung cancer (20% in largest carefully controlled study) in people at high risk when the screening is done by experienced, high-volume lung cancer screening programs.

So who should be screened? Who is at high risk?

According to the guidelines, those for whom lung cancer screening with low-dose chest CT scans are appropriate are people who are between the ages of 55 and 74 and who have smoked 30 pack years (a pack year is one pack of cigarettes a day for one year) or more or who have smoked 30 pack years in the past and quit within the last 15 years and are now within that age range. Those individuals who meet those criteria-should they choose to be screened-should have a low dose chest CT scan every year until age 74.

However, this isn't a blanket recommendation. There are other cautions in the guidelines that you should know about. More...

Annual Report to the Nation on Cancer Trends: Cancer Deaths Continue to Fall, But We Can Do Better

by Dr. Len January 07, 2013

The positive news continues: cancer death rates have continued to fall in the United States, for men and women, maintaining a trend that began in the early 1990's. That's the essence of a report released today by the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The report, titled in part "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2009" also features a special section on the burden and trends in Human Papilloma virus (HPV) associated cancers and HPV vaccination coverage levels. Unlike the continuing decline in cancer deaths in the United States, we could be doing a much better job of getting young folks vaccinated against HPV and reducing the incidence and death rates from several HPV-associated cancers, according to the authors of the report and an editorial that accompanied the report.

This report comes out every year. It is a summation of what we know about the trends in incidence rates for the most common cancers in the United States among both men and women as well as the trends in death rates from those cancers that lead to the highest mortality in the general population as well as specific ethnic groups. It is in a real sense a report card on our progress, which in large part is good but in a number of cancers, not so good.

The good news is what we have come to expect: since the year 2000, the overall cancer death rates have continued to decline 1.8% per year in men, 1.4% in women and 0.6% per year in children. That may not sound like much, but when you consider the fact that this is an average change seen every year, those numbers begin to add up. More...

A Moment Of Reflection As The Pink Of Breast Cancer In October Gives Way To The Reality of Lung Cancer In November

by Dr. Len November 05, 2012

Now that we are saying goodbye to the pink of October as we move onward from breast cancer awareness month, let us welcome the month of November, when we will shift our attention to lung cancer.

An article I read this past week posted on "Fair Warning" highlighted these issues, using breast cancer and lung cancer as a frame of reference. It carefully and in my personal opinion very professionally looked at the differences. Not casting blame, not failing to report both sides of the story, the author concisely pointed out how the way we relate to these two cancers is so fundamentally different.

In October we are awash in pink. Sometimes it seems the whole world is "pinked."  Breast cancer is a passionate and compassionate topic, one that touches so many aspects of our sensitivities and sensibilities. It is a disease which frightens many women. It is a disease worthy of our efforts to find a preventive strategy that is acceptable and a treatment that will provide a cure. It is a disease which in our minds is almost always curable, if only we find it early. And-please keep this in mind-it is a disease where the perception is common that women (and the rare man) didn't do something specific to cause in the first place, other than occasionally to have the unfortunate fate of having been born to parents who carried a genetic trait that increased their risk.

Although lung cancer is a disease that merits our concern and our focused and committed efforts to reduce its incidence and impact on our lives, our families and our society, the reality is that how we talk and act about lung cancer is eons away from how we approach the topic of breast cancer. After all, lung cancer is in the minds of many a disease that people bring on themselves. If only they didn't give in to tobacco. If only they had stopped when they knew the real risks. If only, if only, if only...

Lung cancer is almost always a fatal disease. It is a disease that frequently strikes in the later years of life, when other diseases are also prevalent, and those other diseases (think heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease) can substantially impact the ability to treat lung cancer. It is a disease where screening has proven to be successful, but we forget that the vast majority of people screened for lung cancer still died and a significant number of folks who were screened but didn't have lung cancer died from the investigations needed to prove they didn't have lung cancer in the first place.

Breast cancer touches almost everyone, and the survivors (fortunately) are legion. They carry the flag to promote early detection, research into treatment, political attention to issues of interest (think mammography and more recently breast density), and fundraising for the cause.

Lung cancer is, in comparison, much more hidden, even perhaps shunned and shamed, since it is perceived as a disease of blame. There is no army of survivors. Much less is spent on lung cancer research compared to breast cancer. Lung cancer does not get a lot of political attention unless we are talking about laws to decrease smoking (which are not bad in and of themselves). But when you think about it, many of those laws are backed not by the smokers-who still want the right to expose themselves to second hand smoke in the last refuges available, such as bars frequented only by adults-but rather by the legions of people who understandably will no longer tolerate the true evils of second hand smoke where they work, where they play and even where they live (smoking in communal buildings such as apartments and condominiums is becoming a hot topic). More...

Will Genomics Lead Us To A Brave New World Of Cancer Diagnosis?

by Dr. Len June 03, 2012

 

One of the things I enjoy about coming to meetings like the current annual session of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is that it gives me a chance to give thought to some larger questions that face cancer care. A presentation I attended Friday afternoon on the impact of genomics on cancer diagnosis and treatment in the future has offered just such an opportunity.

 

Most of you I suspect give little thought to the actual processes that we use to diagnose cancer. One has a tumor somewhere in the body, the doctors take a specimen, send it to the pathologist and the pathologist makes the diagnosis. Simple and straightforward. Get it done and get on with treatment.

 

But in fact it isn't so simple and straightforward. And in the world we live in, it is getting more and more complex.

 

Looking at cancer tissue under the microscope is something that has been done for over a century. More recently, we have seen the advent of special additional tests that tell us for example whether or not a cancer such as breast cancer is hormone sensitive or whether it has other markers such as HER2. We can send specimens of the cancer to a lab to find out whether or not it is more or less aggressive and we can even do tests to find out whether or not--for example--a woman with a breast cancer really needs to take traditional cancer chemotherapy. There are even special stains that can be applied to tumor tissue through a variety of techniques that can further refine the characteristics of a particular tumor and help us determine what kind of cancer it may be, or what subgroup of a family of cancers, such as lymphoma, a particular cancer fits in to.

 

All of that is well and good, but unfortunately that simple explanation does neither justice to how doctors diagnose cancer, nor does it say much about the problems that can occur in making cancer diagnoses, especially with all of the new tests that are available. I suspect that many physicians will agree that simply looking at the tissue under the microscope just doesn't tell us anymore all the things we should know about a particular individual's cancer. More...

Promising New Approach To Treating Cancer Means Hope For Many, But Remember This Is Just The Start Of The Journey

by Dr. Len June 02, 2012

Every year at this time cancer specialists and researchers from around the world descend on Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) to hear the latest breakthroughs in cancer research and treatment.

 

Through all the fog of all the information--which is impossible for any one individual to evaluate much less comprehend--there is always the search for the "buzz," or the next "big thing" that will make a huge impact on cancer treatment and the lives of the patients we care for and the people we love who are affected by cancer.

 

This year, it is apparent already that one of this year's "big things" are the reports of new success in an old and ongoing effort to harness the body's own defense mechanisms to fight cancer. And--being the skeptic that I can be at times--I will throw my hat in the ring that maybe this is going to be one of those events that truly will impact cancer care. But despite the enthusiasm, we must always temper our expectations with reality and lessons we have learned from the past that early success doesn't always tell us the whole story.

 

Without going into great detail here, the reality is that in early stage trials an antibody drug now called "BMS-936558" produced significant responses in a number of patients who had certain advanced cancers and had failed multiple prior treatments. In these studies, patients with melanoma, kidney cancer and non-small cell lung cancer showed responses to this new drug and some of those responses lasted for over a year.

 

When you see these kinds of results in cancers that are ordinarily difficult to treat, and in patients who have failed multiple other therapies, that becomes news. More...

Weight And Inactivity Are Threatening To Overtake Tobacco As Risk Factors For Cancer According To Annual Report To The Nation

by Dr. Len March 28, 2012

The "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer" was released this afternoon as has been the case every year since the first report was issued in 1998. And, like many of the reports previously, we are fortunate to continue to see declines in the rates of deaths for many cancers along with a decrease in the frequency of some cancers.

 

However, the news is not all good.

 

Unfortunately, the incidence of some cancers continues to increase. And, as explained very clearly in this excellent report, this nation continues to suffer from an epidemic of overweight, obesity and physical activity that the authors suggest-but don't actually say-has the potential to overcome the favorable impact of declining smoking and tobacco use on cancer incidence and deaths. The implication is clear that if we don't do something-and do something quickly-to reverse the trend we will see incidence and deaths from certain cancers continue to increase in the future.

 

And I would stress the point that it is no longer just being oversized that increases your risk of cancer, but also sitting all day on the job (like I am doing right now) as another factor that plays into your cancer risk, independent of how large or small you may be. More...

Surgeon General's Report On Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: So If We Know What To Do, Why Aren't We Doing It?

by Dr. Len March 09, 2012

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend the event marking the release of the 31st Surgeon General's report on tobacco and smoking.

 

What struck me about this report-which focuses on tobacco use in youth and young adults--is that although we have made progress in the tobacco wars, we presently seem to be in a holding action. We are not making advances in reducing the incidence of smoking and use of smokeless tobacco products, although we are all well aware of their risks and harms.

 

The fundamental question remains: Although we have a pretty good idea of what works, when are we going to start reinvigorating our efforts to reduce the use of these killer products among our children?

 

As I have said many times before, tobacco is the one product readily and legally available in the United States that when used as intended will kill half the people who use it. 443,000 deaths a year, 1200 a day, $96 billion each year in direct medical costs and $97 billion in lost productivity. Those, my friends, are big numbers. And they are not just numbers: they are people. They are the people we love, the people we know, the people we work with. More...

Cancer Facts and Figures 2012: One Million Cancer Deaths Averted, But We Still Have A Long Way To Go

by Dr. Len January 04, 2012

Welcome to the New Year!

 

And as has been the case for many years in the past, the American Cancer Society takes the New Year opportunity of providing the nation with the latest estimates of cancer incidence and deaths, along with a measure of how well we are doing in reducing the burden of cancer in the United States.

 

The data is contained in two reports released today by the Society: the consumer oriented Cancer Facts and Figures 2012 and the more scientifically directed Cancer Statistics 2012. Both are available online. 

 

It is never "good news" to realize that the burden of cancer in this country is immense. And with the country gaining in population and age, the extent of that burden is inevitably going to increase. But this year's report does contain some welcome information, namely that cancer death rates have declined in men and women of every racial/ethnic group over the past 10 years, with the sole (and unfortunate) exception of American Indians/Alaska Natives. In addition, the Society now estimates that a bit more than one million cancer deaths (1,024,400 to be exact) have been avoided since 1991-1992.

 

That one million number is actually more significant than it seems. Many of the people in that 1 million never heard the words "you have cancer." Maybe they had a colon polyp removed before it became cancerous, maybe they stopped-or never started-smoking. Maybe they had a pap smear that found a pre-cancerous lesion. And then there are the patients who have benefitted from the advances in cancer treatment that have occurred over the past number of decades.

 

But the 1 million number also means that these are people who have hopefully remained active and engaged in life, loved by their families, productive in their communities. In economic terms, the return on investment on avoiding those one million deaths may likely be incalculable. In human terms, it is an amazing accomplishment. More...

Today Is A Good Day To Commit To Stop Smoking As We Celebrate The 36th Annual Great American Smokeout

by Dr. Len November 17, 2011

It's that time of year again.

 

Thanksgiving is just a week away (go turkey!!!), which means today is the American Cancer Society's annual Great American Smokeout (or GASO for short). In fact, 2011 is the 36th year for the Smokeout, which makes it a longstanding (and successful) tradition in our world.

 

What, you may ask, is GASO?

 

Well, GASO is a day to focus on the opportunity--if you are a smoker or know someone who is--to make a commitment to quit, or perhaps a day to choose as your "quit day" if you were alert enough to plan ahead. It is a day when you can take a step that could be one of the most important ones you can make, a pledge to do something which could be the single greatest thing you can do for your health, a day to reduce your risk of death from cancer and many other diseases related to smoking.

 

Quitting isn't easy. We all know that. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco are among the most addicting substances we can take into our bodies. And the sad reality is that if you decide to smoke, the chances are about 1 in 2 that smoking will have a role in causing your death. And to make matters even worse, that death is likely to be premature.

 

In fact, every year in this country, 443,000 people die from tobacco related illnesses. More...

About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.

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