Lung cancer cases highlight need for breast cancer survivor research

March 12, 2014 | by

Treatment for breast cancer has improved over the years, dramatically so. But many women, and even their physicians, don't fully understand how their treatment can affect their later risk of cancer, specifically of lung cancer.

lung cancer

Lung cancer isn't a disease only of smokers. Women treated for breast cancer have a higher risk of lung cancer down the road.

One City of Hope patient, diagnosed and successfully treated for breast cancer 20 years earlier, said she was “totally floored” by her lung cancer diagnosis. After all, she’d never smoked, and the common perception of lung cancer has been that it’s a disease only of smokers. That perception is slowly changing.

As explained by Karen Reckamp, M.D., M.S., co-director of City of Hope’s Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program: “The most common cause of lung cancer is tobacco smoke, and the risk increases with the quantity and duration of smoking. Yet nearly 15 percent of those who develop lung cancer have never smoked, so there are other factors clearly involved such as the environment and genetics. Although these causes are not well-outlined, research is ongoing to improve our understanding of nonsmoking-related lung cancers.”

The patient's story not only emphasizes City of Hope's track record in successfully treat lung cancer, it calls attention to the need for long-term follow-up of cancer survivors.

Lung cancers are not necessarily linked to radiation, of course, even in those who received radiation therapy. But the fact remains: More people are surviving cancer than in generations past, only to find they face sometimes-unexpected health problems down the road, often from the treatment itself.

Only by monitoring cancer survivors, and taking note of their needs, can physicians identify the illnesses and conditions to which they might be more susceptible.  

When it comes to lung cancer, radiation therapy for breast cancer is indeed one of the risk factors, physicians have learned, said Dan J. Raz, M.D., also co-director of City of Hope's Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program.

“There is a small increased risk of lung cancer in women who have had radiation for breast cancer on the same side as the prior breast cancer,” he said, and the connection is supported by medical literature

Many women, and their primary care physicians, may be unaware of that risk. That brings us back to the need for increased studies of people who have survived cancer.   

City of Hope’s Center for Cancer Survivorship studies the challenges faced by former cancer patients, including treatment-related health problems, which can include osteoporosis, heart disease and secondary cancers.

“I had been cancer-free for 20 years," the former breast cancer patient said. "I just went in for my usual checkup, and that’s when I was diagnosed with lung cancer. ... I thought it was only smokers, so we had to get a fast education.”

More education, all around, is needed.

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