Dr. Heather Wakelee outlines key steps that patients should consider taking following a lung cancer diagnosis. Find your voice with the Pro-Active Patient Toolkit Resource Guide, available here.
Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.
For a patient who is facing a new diagnosis of lung cancer, there are a lot of really important things to keep in mind. But really thinking about top three of them, the first one is that you wanna know what stage the cancer is. And when we talk about stage, we’re talking about how far the caner has spread. So, sometimes a cancer is found at Stage I when it’s still just a mass, a tumor in the lung.
Stage II means that it’s spread into some of the lymph nodes that are still in the lung. And for Stage I and II, for most people, we know that that means surgery is the treatment option. The next stage is Stage III, and that means that the cancer has started to spread into these lymph nodes.
And lymph nodes are just normal part of the body, but it’s a place cancer often will go. And if it goes into the lymph nodes in the center of the chest, called the mediastinum, then it becomes Stage III. And that changes the treatment. It’s usually more complicated. You wouldn’t normally just have surgery. There’s still sometimes surgery, and sometimes radiation, and almost always some sort of treatment like chemotherapy.
But it’s very complex. And usually we recommend that if you know it’s Stage III that you have a team that’s surgeons and radiation oncologists and medical oncologists to think about it. And then Stage IV means that’s it’s spread. So, knowing – meaning that it’s spread in a way where treatments are gonna involve chemotherapy or targeted treatment or immune therapy, and sometimes radiation, but not normally surgery.
And so, because it’s such a big difference in how things are treated based on stage, that’s the most important question to talk to your treating team about. The next most important question, assuming that it’s metastatic or Stage IV because that’s the most common way that we find lung cancer.
If it is metastatic or Stage IV then you wanna find out well, are there any markers, any tumor markers or cancer genetic changes, that are gonna help pick the treatment. And when I say that, I’m talking about gene changes in specific genes. The ones we think about a lot is something called EGFR, or epidermal growth factor receptor; or ALK, which is A-L-K; KRAS. There’s a whole list of them. But the most important are EGFR, ALK, and ROS, and BRAF.
And why that’s so critical is that if you have metastatic cancer and the tumor has one of those mutations then instead of chemotherapy, the best treatments are gonna be pill drugs, so basically, medications that you take my mouth. And we know that when the tumor has one of those specific mutations, the pill drugs are gonna be more likely to shrink the tumor and have that last longer. So, that’s why it’s so important to know about that. And then the other thing that we look at a lot is something called PD-L1, and that helps us determine about the immune therapy.
So, there’s been a lot on the news about this new class of treatments called immune therapy. And those can work for a lot of different people with a lot of different kinds of cancers. But they don’t always work. And this PD-L1 test can help us know a little bit more about when it might be the best choice, or when it might be something we can add to chemotherapy. And so, getting that information back is important, too.
And I’m gonna add a little bit extra to that. A lot of times that PD-L1 result will come back faster than the gene changes of the tumor, the molecular changes to the tumor. And it’s important to have the whole picture, so you wanna know not just what stage, not just the PD-L1, but also if there are any gene changes in the tumor, so that the best treatment choice can be talked about with the care team.