07:32am Monday 01 June 2020

Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers on the Rise

On Saturday November 16, the Columbia University Department of Surgery hosted Lung Cancer Awareness Dayaty at the medical center campus, in Washington Heights. To learn more about this program we spoke with Joshua R. Sonett, MD, Section Chief, General Thoracic Surgery, who spoke at the event.

Question: This was the first-ever Lung Cancer Awareness Day for the Department of Surgery. What was the reason for creating this?

Joshua Sonett: Lung cancer is sometimes referred to as the “forgotten cancer,” probably because of its association with smoking. While it is true that 80–90 percent of lung cancer cases are attributed to smoking, there are other causes such as exposure to asbestos, radon gas, and even pollution. Genetics also play a role in lung cancer. Someone who has never smoked can develop the disease.

Nobody wants to get cancer, and regardless of the cause, we must remember to treat all of these patients with compassion and respect. Lung cancer is also the most common cancer in the U.S., so it’s important that we educate people about the disease

Q: What was discussed at Lung Cancer Awareness Day?

JS: In addition to screening and prevention, we discussed the impact of lung cancer on our society and the merits and risks of available treatment options.

The day wrapedp up with the personal story of a young man who was diagnosed and cured of lung cancer and then went on to become an advocate for using personalized medicine to treat the disease.

Q: Is the occurrence of lung cancer decreasing?

JS: Lung cancer caused by smoking is decreasing—probably thanks to the outreach and educational efforts taking place today. Yet, the new cases of lung cancer attributed to non-smoking causes are increasing, and the reasons for this are unknown. Lung cancer is curable in most cases, but there are still aspects of the disease we do not understand. This is why awareness days like this are needed and beneficial to both the medical community and public.

Q: Did you provide information on smoking cessation?

JS: Lung Cancer Awareness Day focused on the medical and surgical aspects of lung cancer. Cessation involves addiction and psychology and more than surgical or medical expertise. For that reason, it was not be a central topic. Anyone who is interested in learning about cessation can visit http://smokefree.gov.

Q: Did you address questions about e-cigarettes? For instance, are e-cigarettes safe?

JS: Again, because of our medical and surgical focus, we did not discuss e-cigarettes at Lung Cancer Awareness Day.

As a side comment, scientific studies on e-cigarettes are in the early stages, and hence inconclusive—much as they were at first with tobacco. It took more than 50 years for the scientific community to determine that cigarettes were unsafe. Yet I still cannot imagine that smoking  e-cigarettes is an activity that anyone should start.

Q: Was personalized medicine discussed at the Lung Cancer Awareness Day?

JS: Yes, personalized medicine, a topic that is growing in importance, was covered by my colleague Balazs Halmos, MD. (For a brief overview of the use of personalized medicine in the treatment of lung cancer, please see this video that Dr. Sonett made at the beginning of this year.)

Q: Can you tell us about the patient who spoke at Lung Cancer Awareness Day?

JS: He is a very interesting and compelling young man who has made himself into a well-known advocate of using personalized medicine for the treatment of lung cancer. Against steep odds, he has successfully fought his diagnosis and is doing very well.

Q: What would you say to someone who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer?

JS: Lung cancer is cured every day, regardless of the stage when diagnosed. So there is always hope. It’s important to accept a lung cancer diagnosis in a positive and constructive manner with a mindset of being cured.

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