Lung cancer expert Dr. Jyoti Patel explains small cell lung cancer versus non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and how treatment goals may vary by disease stage and patient factors.
Jyoti Patel, MD, is Medical Director of Thoracic Oncology and Assistant Director for Clinical Research at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. She is also Associate Vice-Chair for Clinical Research and a Professor in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Patel is a leader in thoracic oncology, focusing her efforts on the development and evaluation of novel molecular markers and therapeutics in patients battling non-small cell lung cancer. Learn more about Dr. Patel here: Dr. Patel.
Before we get into treatment though, I’d like you to walk us through the types of lung cancer if you would.
Sure. So, over 200,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year. And we break lung cancer down into two major diagnoses. So, the more common one is non-small cell lung cancer. The less common one, which accounts for 13 percent of diagnoses, is small cell lung cancer. Those are descriptive terms but don’t really go beyond that. It’s, essentially, what do the cells look like under the microscope? We know that these two behave very differently. Small cell lung cancer tends to be a cancer which can move a little bit more quickly. It tends to be more aggressive.
We have certain treatment regimens that are appropriate. Non-small cell lung cancer is one which we further subdivide into adenocarcinoma, squamous cell cancer, or large neuroendocrine cancer. And we treat those a little bit more similarly with different local therapies and different systemic agents.
Okay. How would you define treatment goals for people with lung cancer?
So, we hope that the number of patients that we find with earlier stage disease increases as we now at least have evidence to do screening for people who are at high risk. So, for patients with early-stage disease, which we really define as stage I and stage II – so, cancer that’s limited to the lobe of a lung – our best treatment options are surgery and sometimes radiation in appropriate patients. And for those patients, we think that treatment is discreet and curative.
For the third of patients who present with stage III disease or locally-advanced disease – and here we’ve seen significant advancements with the integration of immunotherapies, improvements in surgery, and radiation. Their treatment course tends to be a bit longer but, again, our intent is curative. So, the cancer has discreet therapy, we complete it, and then patients are in survivorship mode, in which we’re following them periodically.
Unfortunately, still, a large number of patients present with more advanced disease. Stage IV disease or metastatic disease. Those are all sort of interchangeable. And treatment for those patients is about controlling the cancer. Often, you’ll hear the word “palliative.” So, the goal of treatment is to control the cancer, to decrease the burden of cancer, and to help patients live longer. Certainly, again, with our advancements of immunotherapies and targeted therapies, patients are living longer than ever before.
And in some patients, it really becomes a chronic disease in which checkups can be periodically done or patients can be monitored off of treatment for long periods.
Mm-hmm. Do treatment goals vary by lung cancer type?
So, the goal of cancer treatment is always to make patients live longer and to make sure that that quality of that survival is the best it can be. So, that’s always our overlying goal. For patients with early disease or early stage – stage I to III non-small cell lung cancer – is something we call limited stage. Small cell lung cancer, the intent is, again, curative. For patients with more advanced disease, we tend to think about the cancer as something that we control, that we see a good response to hopefully, and watch patients over time.
There are a subset of patients with more advanced disease that have really significantly better outcomes. We call these sort of patients “super survivors.” And we hope to make that number greater as we incorporate new science into their treatment paradigms.
What is the role of patients in making treatment decisions?
I think all treatment decisions are patient-focused.
So, again, understanding someone’s goals of treatment are important. But understanding the context in which the cancer is happening. So, the cancer is part of a patient that has a really full life. Family. Work. Other medical comorbidities. Things that they prioritize. And so, having open discussion about the likelihood of achieving curative therapy or what the risks and benefit ratios are in palliative therapy are absolutely essential to having transparent and honest communication with patients. But it is also optimistic and compassionate.