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Team of Doctors Joins Couple to Battle Lung Cancer

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In the past decade, immunotherapy has brought a fundamental change to the way cancer is treated. Instead of fighting cancer with surgery, toxic radiation or chemotherapy, immunotherapy activates the immune system to fight cancer with the body’s own resources.

“Immunotherapy has added years to people’s lives and improved our cure rates,” said oncologist Laurie Carr, MD.

Many cancers have a sort of “invisibility cloak” that helps them hide from the immune system. Molecules on their surfaces bind to patrolling immune cells, signaling, “Nothing to see here. Keep moving.” The most common cancer immunotherapy blocks that interaction using what are called checkpoint inhibitors, allowing immune cells to recognize and attack the cancer.

Today, just about every lung cancer patient at National Jewish Health, except those with some form of autoimmune disease or other contraindication, receives immunotherapy.

Researchers are evaluating strategies to combine immunotherapy with chemotherapy and to use it at earlier stages to further improve outcomes. They are also working to understand and prevent skin rashes, the most common side effect, which can be severe enough to interrupt therapy for some patients.

The earlier lung cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat. A quick chest CT scan is the best way to screen for lung cancer. Screenings are covered by most insurance providers and Medicare if you qualify. 

In 2014, an X-ray for Vietnam veteran Roger White’s lingering cough showed three troubling spots on his lungs. His wife Ann knew about National Jewish Health through her work as an auditor for the institution. “If it was in the lungs, we knew we wanted to be at National Jewish Health, no question about it,” said Ann King White.

Since then, the Wyoming couple have been thrilled and reassured by Roger’s treatment. Their care team kept them fully informed about what to expect, exactly how the therapy was progressing and how to reduce side effects. “You feel like you are walking with them along the journey,” said Ann King White.

The three spots on White’s lungs were diagnosed early as Stage 1 lung cancer. At the time, checkpoint inhibitors were just becoming available, but only for severe and advanced cases of lung cancer. So, the tumors were removed. When another tumor appeared in 2016, radiation killed the cancer cells.

In 2020, Jeffrey Kern, MD, chief of the Division of Oncology and the Cancer Center, and his colleagues discovered yet another tumor that had spread to White’s lymph nodes, making it Stage 3 lung cancer. Dr. Carr, also on White’s care team, treated him with radiation and chemotherapy. After the radiation and chemotherapy, Dr. Carr began immunotherapy, which reduces the risk of recurrence and improves survival. On White’s latest visit in March 2023, the cancer seemed to have been so well-controlled that Dr. Carr increased the follow-up period from six months to one year.

“I don’t think I could have been blessed with a better care team or a better outcome,” said White.

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