Meet our doctors: Karen Reckamp on lung cancer’s mystery risks

October 26, 2013 | by

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the United States, causing more deaths than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. Health professionals agree that tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, but people who don't smoke get lung cancer, too.

Karen Reckamp, M.D., says City of Hope experts have made significant strides forward in helping lung cancer patients.

Karen Reckamp says City of Hope experts have made significant strides forward in helping lung cancer patients.

Here Karen Reckamp, M.D., M.S., co-director of City of Hope’s Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program, sorts out facts about lung cancer and smoking, what current treatments are available, and simple ways to reduce lung cancer risk.

What causes lung cancer and who is most at risk?

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.

What can people do to limit their risk for lung cancer?

The best way to limit a person’s risk for lung cancer is never start smoking. But for those who smoke, it is never too late to stop. The risk for lung cancer does not return to normal, but can decline over time following smoking cessation. In people who have a history of smoking, low-dose computed tomography screening of the chest can improve survival for those at high risk for lung cancer.

What are the biggest and/or newest developments in treating lung cancer?

We have begun to expand our knowledge of the cancer genome, and that has brought novel targeted therapies to lung cancer treatment. For some patients, we can assess the genetic biology of the tumor and determine precise drugs that will specifically stop tumor growth for their cancer. In addition, we have a better understanding of the interaction of the immune system and lung cancer growth. This is also leading to new treatments that harness the immune system to kill lung cancer.

Where is lung cancer research going and what do you think will be accomplished in the next five or 10 years?

Through lung cancer screening, we should start to see more early-stage lung cancers translating into more cures. We continue to identify new targets and develop therapies to block tumor progression and in five to 10 years, this will lead to improved outcomes for patients with lung cancer. Patients can expect that treatments will be more precise for their tumor and will have less side effects and more benefit.

What inspired you to enter lung cancer treatment and research?

Multiple events on my path to medicine led to my interest in lung cancer research and treatment. I have seen the difficulties presented and have been motivated to want more and do better for those affected. It is always the patients and families that push me to question and strive for answers that make a difference. Lung cancer is a disease that brings many challenges, but we have made significant strides forward in helping patients and improving their lives. It is that belief – that we can continue the advancements that will impact many – that brings meaning to each day.

What advice do you have for patients recently diagnosed with lung cancer?

A diagnosis of lung cancer brings uncertainty and distress, and patients and their families need to know they will be guided down this new path by a team. We work in a multidisciplinary group to best assess the diagnosis and potential treatment options for a patient. Questions should be welcomed, and accepting offered support will be essential to moving forward. The most important thing to remember is that each person with lung cancer is unique, and the right treatment can be based on genetic testing and careful evaluation of the cancer. And to always remember, there is hope.

To learn more about lung cancer screening and treatment options available at City of Hope, visit  our lung cancer program page.