Ryan McFadden/MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Lung cancer survival rates are improving, especially among historically underserved communities of color, according to a new survey from the American Lung Association released Tuesday.
The findings are a bright note amid deepening racial disparities in many areas of health care.
The five-year lung cancer survival rate increased 22% in the five years between 2015 and 2019. It is currently 26.6% across all racial and ethnic groups. Among people of color, the survival rate increased 17% in just two years (2017-2019), and now stands at 23.7%.
The survey results were “unexpected,” says Zach Jump, director of epidemiology and statistics at the American Lung Association, adding that the speed with which racial disparities appear to be closing is notable.
“We are encouraged by the work being done to destigmatize lung cancer, increase lung cancer detection and improve lung cancer treatment,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Association of Lung in a statement.
Lung cancer remains the cancer that kills the most Americans, with 127,000 deaths last year. People of color tend to be diagnosed at later stages than their white counterparts and are less likely to have access to treatments such as surgery, which have historically reduced their chance of survival.
Improvements in survival are not equal across breeds and some disparities still exist. The survival rate for whites is 25%, but the survival rate is 21% for African Americans, 22% for indigenous people, and 23% for Hispanics. These rates are an improvement over data from two years earlier, when survival rates were only 18% for African Americans and 19% for Indigenous people and Hispanics.
Asian Americans survive lung cancer at higher rates than whites, and their survival rate jumped from 23.4% to 29% in two years.
Jump says he hopes these improvements can continue and be replicated across other racial disparities in health care. “Honestly, that’s our next question: trying to figure out what the driving factor behind this is.”
The report also points out some stark geographic disparities in lung cancer survival rates. Rhode Island patients had a 33% survival rate, while Oklahoma’s was 21%.
Overall five-year survival rates for lung cancer are notably lower than those for many other cancers. Breast cancer, for example, has a five-year survival rate of 91%, and the colorectal cancer rate is around 65%.
Lung cancer survival rates could be higher, Jump says, if more high-risk people had annual low-dose CT scans, which are an effective way to detect the disease in early stages. When detected at an early stage, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is much higher: 63%.
But last year, only 4.5% of those eligible were screened for lung cancer, a rate far lower than that for breast or colorectal cancers.
In fact, just over a quarter of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage, according to the report, and 44% of cases are not detected until a late stage, when the survival rate is only 8%.
Jump says lung cancer doesn’t have to be the same terrible diagnosis it once was, thanks to recent new treatments that are proving to be very effective, especially when used at an early stage. “All of a sudden you started getting these targeted immunotherapies and it was a paradigm shift,” he says.
Jump says he hopes detection rates will improve, raising survival rates.
It is rare to see such dramatic improvements in cancer care and survival rates in such a short period of time, especially in ways that benefit disadvantaged communities.
“Very often, cancer care in general and lung cancer in particular moves at a fairly slow pace,” Jump says. “So being able to see significant progress in a couple of years has been very exciting and definitely a cause for optimism.”