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Health Team

Survivors Raise Awareness of Lung Cancer

Posted November 2, 2007 4:26 p.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2007 9:40 p.m. EDT

Lung cancer kills more men and women than any other cancer, but receives less funding for research than three of the other most deadly cancers combined.

Lung cancer leads to more than deaths than colorectal, breast and prostrate cancers taken together, and now more doctors and lung-cancer survivors are stepping out to bring attention to the disease.

Steve Shakal is an unusual breed: Diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in 2000, he is still alive seven years later, after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

"Eighty-five percent of those diagnosed today are dead within five years," Shakal said.

The high death rate comes because most people are not diagnosed until they show symptoms of an advanced stage of cancer. Those symptoms include shortness of breath, chronic coughing or coughing up blood coupled with unexplained weight loss.

"Most patients that are not able to surgically have the cancer removed for a variety of reasons are not curable at this point in time," said Dr. Yuri Fesko, an oncologist at Duke Raleigh Hospital.

Another problem, Fesko said, is that lung tumors are often resistant to chemotherapy drugs.

An ongoing clinical trial at Duke is studying patients’ genetic profile to help them circumvent the often long hit-and-miss process of finding the right chemotherapy drug. The study also aims to predict the intensity of drugs that patients will need based on the actual cancer tissue in their lungs.

Other studies are looking at better ways to screen those at highest risk for lung cancer, such as smokers. That group makes up 90 percent of lung-cancer cases.

The best prevention is to help smokers kick the habit and to broaden work-place smoking bans, Fesko said.

Shakal's wife, Pat, said non-smokers, also need to be aware.

"I think it's very important. I did lose a cousin at age 38 to lung cancer who never smoked," Pat Shakal said.

Lung cancer awareness is a personal mission for the couple. Steve Shakal is a charter member of North Carolinians Against Lung Cancer, a group of survivors and health-care professionals. The nonprofit is working to increase awareness about the disease and raise funds for early detection and treatment.

"Fortunately, I'm still here and can do something about it, and I mean to do something about it," Steve Shakal said.

North Carolinians Against Lung Cancer has planned a Free to Breathe 5K Run/Walk & Rally at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh on Saturday, Nov. 3.