Cancer deaths are on the decline, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced today, but lung cancer remains the most deadly form of cancer, with a mortality rate of 85 percent.
This year more than 157,000 people are expected to die from the disease, but researchers are now testing new ways to detect lung tumors earlier and treat them more effectively.
Georgette Kelly, 62, was not worried about lung cancer. She had no symptoms and her chest X-rays were clear, but she had been a smoker.
"I was a smoker for over 50 years," she told ABCNEWS, "and I was a little curious about how much damage I had done to myself."
So Kelly tried a newer, more precise type of diagnostic test called a spiral CT scan, which provides a three-dimensional view of the lungs.
"The advantage of the CT scans today," said Dr. Claudia Henschke, a radiologist at Cornell University, "is that you can see tiny nodules, tiny cancers that are as small as a grain of rice. This was impossible to see even on the best chest X-rays that we make today."
And these cancers are detected before a patient shows any sign of disease.
"By the time patients have symptoms, feeling sick or tired, that's clearly too late," said Dr. Stephen Swensen of the Mayo Clinic. "Almost all of those people will be dead within a very short period of time."
Using CT scans, researchers have found that more than 80 percent of cancers they detect are potentially curable.
In Kelly's case, doctors saw a tiny tumor on her lung and surgically removed it. Today, five years later, she has no trace of cancer.
"I probably would have been dead by now if it had not been picked up by the CT scan," said Kelly.
CT scans can also trigger a lot of false alarms. The vast majority of suspicious lesions turn out to be harmless but they often require more scans and even painful biopsies.
For patients who have advanced lung cancer, researchers are finding that new, highly targeted drugs — the so-called smart bombs of cancer treatment — are showing early promise.
Barbara Scallan had undergone surgery and two chemotherapy treatments and still her cancer was spreading from her lung to other parts of her body. Then she enrolled in a clinical trial of two experimental drugs.
One drug, Avastin, is an anti-angiogenesis drug. It cuts off the blood supply to the cancer cells, in effect starving the tumor of oxygen and nutrients. The other drug, Tarceva, is an epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitor. It enters the cancer cells and disrupts their signal pathways.
"Within three months we saw on her X-rays that her tumors had begun to shrink and had shrunk to more than 50 percent of its area," said Dr. Roy Herbst, chief of thoracic medical oncology at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
And Scallan's tumors have stayed that way for more than a year, allowing her to enjoy an active lifestyle.
"I have no side effects," said Scallan. "I'm almost back to normal again. I have a few aches and pains, but not nearly like I was on chemotherapy."
In a small, ongoing clinical trial, Herbst said about 20 percent of patients with advanced lung cancer have shown similar results.
"These are biological therapies," he said, "based on breakthroughs in molecular biology over the last decades."
And there are at least 13 drugs of these drugs now being tested on lung cancer.