Cancer survival rates hit historic highs

The public walks through an inflatable lung as they participate in The LungXperience, an exhibit sponsored by AstraZeneca that raises awareness about lung cancer.

Lung cancer’s opponents come in many forms. There’s the giant inflatable lung that just passed through to educate residents on risks and treatment options for the second most common cancer in men and women. There’s also Ronald Newman, a stage 4 lung cancer patient, urging fellow smokers to quit while participating in clinical trials to find new drugs. Varied efforts, when combined, are starting to see results. Declines in lung cancer are credited with driving the largest single-year drop in cancer death rates ever recorded in the American Cancer Society’s annual statistics released last month. Experts agree more will need to be done to overcome the deadliest cancer, though. Researchers are searching for better treatments, and new legislation is targeting smoking. But advocates say there’s also a role for individuals in furthering progress.

An educated community accessing local resources like support groups to quit smoking and screenings to detect early stage cancers can increase the number of lung cancer survivors.

Smoking Link

Smoking is, by far, the leading cause of lung cancer, accounting for about 80% of lung cancer deaths.

Sumter County has the lowest smoking rate in the state at 10%, according to County Health Rankings. Smoking is at an all-time low nationally, but 34 million American adults still smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Newman is among them.

The Village of Dunedin resident said he started at 9 years old.

“People who have never smoked, I don’t think they’ve got a clue how hard it is to quit,” he said. “Every time you think about it, you go and light one up.”

Nearly 70% of smokers — including Newman — say they want to quit, according to the CDC.

It often takes multiple attempts to make it happen. Developing a plan betters chances, said Jennifer Wolowitz. Wolowitz is the special projects coordinator at Tobacco Free Florida’s Central Florida area health education center and a facilitator for local groups.

Tobacco Free Florida, a Florida Department of Health agency, offers a free 24-7 quit line at 1-877-822-6669 and online resources. Locally, it provides four-week, one-hour support groups with nicotine replacement therapy.

Tobacco Free Florida programs have helped 234,000 Floridians quit smoking, Wolowitz said.

“Don’t get discouraged,” she said. “A lot of the statistics show that the more times people quit, the closer it gets them to being fully quit. Just keep trying.”

Newman has cut back from four packs a day to half a pack. He speaks about the dangers to anyone who’ll listen, like his two sons.

“They’ve never smoked because I told them not to,” he said. “I try to encourage people to quit. Never start. I tell them it’s the nastiest habit you can have, and it’s the hardest one to quit.”

Legislators also are working to discourage smoking.

The federal smoking age recently was raised from 18 to 21 years old. The state Legislature currently is considering a bill to bring Florida’s law in line with the federal one.

Another filed bill would allow counties to ban smoking in public parks and on beaches.

Tobacco Free Florida’s next group will start at noon Feb. 25 at UF Health The Villages Hospital’s east campus classroom. Call 1-877-848-6696 to register.

Community Education

Smoking declines are helping, but experts agree more should be done to bring attention to lung cancer’s prevalence. The ACS estimates 228,820 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed this year.

For visitors to The Villages Balloon Festival, that education came in the form of a 14-foot tall and 9-foot wide inflatable lung.

It was the latest stop for the LungXperience, a traveling, interactive exhibit sponsored by drug company AstraZeneca.

Visitors walk through the lung carrying smart devices that activate a series of educational modules that explain the stages of lung cancer and new treatments.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, whose district includes parts of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, praised the exhibit as a reminder for Floridians, an estimated 18,150 of whom will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2020.

“I’m enthused about the opportunity for more people to step up and get ahead of being one of these statistics,” he said.

Learning about the risks can help residents take advantage of screening options, leading to early detection and more treatment options.

“That really is so key to improving survival rates,” said Janelle Hom, executive director of the American Lung Association in Florida.

Most patients don’t have symptoms until late stages, when cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Many don’t realize that, like a mammogram checking for breast cancer, high-risk patients can receive regular lung cancer screening, said Dr. Maen Hussein, medical oncologist and hematologist with Florida Cancer Specialists.

Medicare covers an annual CT scan of the lungs for those ages 55-77 who don’t have symptoms, are a current smoker or quit in the last 15 years, have a history of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years and have a written order from their doctor.

Not all providers are aware of this option, Hussein said, so patients should bring the information to them.

“You do it once a year and it can save lives,” he said.

Late-Stage Treatment Improvements

Newman’s diagnosis came as a shock in August 2016.

“I was scared because when they tell you you’ve got stage 4, that’s kind of way up there,” he said. “I thought I was very close to the end.”

Nearly four years later, he’s still golfing four days a week and feeling good.

In 2005, the median survival for stage 4 lung cancer was 10 months, said Hussein, Newman’s oncologist. Now, it’s almost two and a half years.

“It’s not good enough,” Hussein said. “We still have more to do.”

However, access to new immunotherapy, which strengthens the immune system to fight cancer, and other drugs are helping patients like Newman survive.

He’s now enrolling in his third clinical trial at Florida Cancer Specialists to access drugs not yet available on the market.

Such participation benefits patients directly by giving access to the latest drugs, but it also accelerates the drug approval process, getting life-saving drugs to others faster, Hussein said.

Newman knows how critical it is to find more treatments. He lost four family members — a cousin, sister, brother and his mother — to stage 4 lung cancer in the last year.

Though he won’t be cured, Newman said the treatments have allowed him to enjoy life in The Villages with his wife.

“Instead of thinking that I’m dying with cancer, I’m thinking that I’m living with it,” he said.

Jim Nolan shares that positivity, even on the bad days.

During those times, dizziness, nausea and fatigue mean he can’t even drive himself.

Nolan was diagnosed with stage 4 mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can develop in the lungs, in November 2018.

The Village Tierra Del Sol resident believes it was caused by exposure to asbestos when he worked in a lab setting as a physicist in the 1960s.

Nolan was told that with chemotherapy, he could live two more years.

Initially, he considered not seeking treatment. Before his wife died 12 years ago, she underwent chemo for breast cancer and said she regretted it because the side effects were so severe.

But after discussing it with his sons, he decided to give it a try.

He’s often very tired, yes. But a positive attitude is important for anyone with lung cancer, Nolan said.

Focusing on the good days, when he can go dancing with his girlfriend or exercise at a physical therapy session, motivate him to keep going.

“Two years is up this coming November,” Nolan said. “I’m planning to stick around longer than that.”

Senior writer Ciara Varone can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5395, or ciara.varone@thevillagesmedia.com.