Despite the progress made in reducing lung cancer cases and mortality, the disease remains the number one cause of cancer deaths in the United States. And just as we see elsewhere in our healthcare system, historically underserved populations bear a disproportionate burden of this disease.
Black men and those living in rural communities, in particular, have significantly worse lung cancer outcomes with especially high death rates for both populations. The American Lung Association’s 2020 State of Lung Cancer report found that people of color diagnosed with lung cancer face worse outcomes compared to white Americans. They are less likely to be diagnosed early, less likely to receive surgical treatment, and more likely to not receive any treatment at all.
Fortunately, recent medical advances in lung cancer are allowing for earlier diagnoses and better treatments, which can dramatically improve survival rates. But these advances are not reaching nearly enough people of color and those living in more rural areas.
We must ensure that all communities reap the benefits of everything modern science has to offer — from recommended low-dose CT screenings for current or previous long-time smokers, to the latest therapies and surgical options, to access to clinical trials to ensure that new treatments help everyone. Currently fewer people of color participate in cancer clinical trials, despite the fact that these groups have the shortest cancer survival in the United States.
We have the ability to play a part in correcting these disparities and reducing lung cancer deaths. Stand Up To Cancer’s Health Equity Initiative requires that all funding recipients commit to diverse representation in clinical trials. Also, one of Stand Up To Cancer’s latest initiatives to rectify longstanding inequities includes a research effort, funded by a grant from Bristol Myers Squibb, that aims to increase access to lung cancer care in Black and rural communities. Additionally, the American Lung Association is engaging public health, cancer, and social justice advocates on an initiative to improve awareness and trust around clinical trials among Black Americans.
Intercepting lung cancer at the earliest stage possible is one of the most important tools at our disposal; we encourage anyone who may have delayed lung cancer screening due to the pandemic to reschedule now. And for those diagnosed with lung cancer, it is important to know all available treatment options.
Areas of great progress in lung cancer treatment have come in the form of targeted therapies, which can directly address changes in a patient’s cells that cause uncontrollable growth, or immunotherapies, which harness the body’s immune system to more efficiently find and eliminate cancer. Biomarker testing examines if patients have certain changes in their cells. This information can help doctors select appropriate lung cancer treatments, which may include targeted therapy or immunotherapy. Yet Black Americans receive biomarker testing at much lower rates than their white counterparts, which in turn means they may not receive the most cutting-edge therapies.
Groundbreaking medical advances need to be available to all lung cancer patients. Together we must work towards this aim, with the goal of creating more long-term cancer survivors.