Share on Pinterest
A woman in her seventies with stage 4 lung cancer gets help taking her medication from her granddaughter. Justin Paget/Getty Images
  • More than 230,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with lung cancer every year.
  • The 5-year survivability rate has improved, but it’s still below other cancers.
  • Experts say that’s because too many cancers are diagnosed in later stages.
  • People with lung cancer who are treated in early stages have a significantly higher survivability than people who are treated in later stages.

This week, there’s some encouraging news — but also a reality check — when it comes to lung cancer.

The new “State of Lung Cancer” report from the American Lung Association finds that the 5-year survival rate for people diagnosed with lung cancer increased by 14 percent nationally.

The 2021 report found that 23 percent of people with lung cancer remained alive 5 years after being diagnosed.

“There has been much progress in the treatment of lung cancer with immunotherapy and targeted therapeutics,” Dr. Osita Onugha, a thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgery at Saint John’s Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.

“This has improved survival for late stage primary lung cancer and is also being used for some early stage lung cancers.”

However, that still means that more than 3 out of 4 people diagnosed with lung cancer don’t survive more than 5 years.

The survival rate for lung cancer remains among the lowest for any type of cancer. And lung cancer survivability remains lower among People of Color.

“The report highlights important news — more people are surviving lung cancer. However, it also underscores the fact that, sadly, health disparities persist for Communities of Color,” said Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a press statement.

He noted that the 5-year survival rate is 20 percent in Communities of Color and 18 percent for Black Americans.

“The lack of improvement in lung cancer survival in People of Color is not a problem unique to lung cancer,” Onugha said. “Virtually every study that has looked at segmented data based on race has found racial inequalities in medical care. Racial inequality is a healthcare system problem and not a lack of awareness problem.”

Onugha said that improving cancer survivability for Communities of Color will require better access to care with steps, ranging from better transportation options so people can reach providers to increasing the number of doctors serving these communities.

“Second, the medical workforce needs to be more diverse,” Onugha said. “The literature demonstrates that diverse physician groups lead to better care for everyone.”

One of the reasons that lung cancer is so deadly is that it’s often not diagnosed until its later stages.

If lung cancer is detected early, survivability can be as high as 60 percent. But the report found that only 24 percent of lung cancer cases are detected early. About 46 percent of diagnoses are for late stage cancer, when survivability drops to just 6 percent.

Low-dose CAT scans are an effective screening tool for lung cancer, but less than 6 percent of people considered at high risk for lung cancer get such screenings, the Lung Association said. One reason may be that fee-for-service state Medicaid programs are not required to cover lung cancer screening for high-risk populations.

Once detected, early stage lung cancer can often be treated with surgery. But the report found that only about 1 in 5 such patients underwent surgery as a first course of treatment. About the same number of people with lung cancer get no treatment at all, according to the report.

About 236,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with lung cancer each year.

“Lung cancer is the most common reason for cancer deaths in both genders,” Dr. Salman Zaheer, a thoracic surgeon at Loma Linda University Health in California, told Healthline.

However, he said, the “very encouraging” reductions in lung cancer mortality in recent years can be tied to multiple advances in lung-cancer disease management, including:

  • smoking cessation efforts
  • lung cancer screening
  • the use of endobronchial ultrasound for diagnosis and staging
  • robotic techniques that spare the need for lung surgeries
  • stereotactic body radiation therapy, a form of precision radiation treatment
  • targeted systemic therapy
  • immunotherapy
  • endobronchial treatment of advanced airway obstructions

“There are also several therapies on the horizon, including a cancer vaccine,” Zaheer added.