West Michigan works to lower lung cancer rates


While Michigan is building a strong national reputation as the comeback state, it also is a leader in a more regrettable area — lung cancer incidence rates.

More than 7,800 Michiganders are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, and the state’s incidence rate of 67.5 cases per 100,000 is five points higher than the national average of 62.4. But West Michigan is doing its part to lead the fight against the deadly disease.

Oncologist Yuanbin Chen, who practices at the Cancer & Hematology Centers of Western Michigan, said smoking remains the No. 1 cause for lung cancer, and that is especially true in West Michigan.

“The biology of lung cancer we’ve seen in West Michigan is a little bit different from many other areas; it’s the biology associated with heavy smoking,” Chen said. “The subtype of lung cancer we’ve encountered here is more frequently related to smoking.”

Chen’s recommendation for lifelong smokers who can’t kick the habit is to receive a low-dose CT scan once a year to screen for early signs of lung cancer. He said if the disease is not caught early, it could turn into Stage 4, which is untreatable.

A standard X-ray is not strong enough to detect lung cancer in its earliest stages, and low-dose CT screening is the most effective deterrent, Chen said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of patients and even some primary care physicians, especially in northern and West Michigan, don’t understand that the screening test is available,” he said.

One way the Cancer & Hematology Centers of West Michigan is combating lung cancer is through immuno-oncology, a method in which administered cancer drugs work with the immune system to attack cancer cells rather than targeting cells directly.

While immuno-oncology has been used to treat other forms of cancer, such as kidney cancer and melanoma, Chen said it’s only recently immuno-oncology therapies have been available for lung cancer treatments. Opdivo, which has been FDA approved, is the first immuno-oncology therapy available to treat lung cancer, he said.

Chen said West Michigan, and Grand Rapids in particular, have an advantage in treating lung cancer due to its status as a health care leader. With the large concentration of medical treatment and research facilities calling the region home, patients have better access to drugs and treatments approved by the FDA.

“We’ll always be able to get all of the FDA-approved treatments here, and we also have pretty good clinical trials set up here in Grand Rapids,” Chen said. “We also have advanced technologies here which can identify gene mutations in lung cancers to achieve the right drug at the right time for the right patient based on genetic makeup of the cancer.”

Still, he stressed the most effective treatment is routine checkups and early detection.

“I have seen it save a lot of lives,” he said.

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