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While lung cancer death rates are declining faster than other cancers across Canada, a Toronto-based doctor says there's still a lot of work to be done.
A report released Wednesday by the Canadian Cancer Society indicates lung cancer deaths have dropped by 4.3 per cent per year since 2014 for men, and 4.1 per cent per year since 2016 for women. For both men and women, it has declined by 3.8 per cent annually since 2015.
It's a change the Canadian Cancer Society notes as the fastest decline in lung cancer mortality reported to date in the country. It's also the largest annual decline in mortality rates across all cancer types reported.
On one hand, it's good news for thoracic oncologist Dr. Adrian Sacher, who says the data indicates the efforts made in developing new treatments for lung cancer are having an effect. However, that's not the entire message.
"It's important to keep in mind that this is more of a sign that we can change the outcomes from lung cancer with research and treatment," the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre scientist tells Yahoo Canada. "I wouldn't take it as a sign this is a 'mission accomplished' moment by any measure."
Smoking isn't the only cause of lung cancer
Lung cancer remains the leading cancer for Canadians among all cancer types. According to Sacher, it kills more women annually in Canada than breast or ovarian cancer, and more men than prostate cancer.
In 2023, an estimated 31,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with lung or bronchus cancer, representing 13 per cent of all new cancer cases for the year.
Still, the Canadian Cancer Society reports that in 2023, the lung cancer death rate for men should be 56 per cent lower than it was at its peak in 1988. For women, that change should be 24 per cent lower than its peak in 2006.
That can be mostly attributed to reduced commercial tobacco use, which causes 72 per cent of lung cancer cases in the country.
While smoking habits have changed over the decades, Sacher indicates other factors — like environmental pollution, radiation, radon gas or viral infections — could also be risk factors for the disease.
"That being said, it is often very difficult to ascertain the exact cause of lung cancer in an individual patient," the University of Toronto assistant professor explains.
"I think the take-home message is that although we're making progress with better treatment for lung cancer, lung cancer still disproportionately affects Canadians. It's a huge driver of morbidity and mortality, and we really need more funding and support for research."
Research is important, yet underfunded
Compared to peer countries like the United States, Sacher says research for all cancer types is underfunded.
Between 2016 and 2021, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research spent more than $1 billion in cancer research. But over the years of 2016 to 2019, the United States spent an average of USD $5.5 billion per year, The Conversation reports.
It's something he says "desperately needs to change" in Canada.
"There are a lot of brilliant researchers and doctors in Canada that can really bend the curve on treating lung cancer and other cancers if they're given the resources and funding to do that," he added.
"Lung cancer, in particular, is underfunded compared to other cancers. I think it's a situation where we really desperately need more funding for lung cancer, but we also really need funding for more cancer research broadly."
Down the road, you or someone that you love is going to need it.Dr. Adrian Sacher
In terms of the future of lung cancer in Canada, Sacher says it's difficult to assess the disease since it typically develops decades after someone is exposed to a risk factor. For things that haven't been as thoroughly studied, like vaping or marijuana use, he adds it'll take "quite some time" before those associations can be accurately understood.
"It behooves us all to fund research into lung cancer now in order to improve our treatments and outcomes for patients," Sacher notes. "Down the road, you or someone that you love is going to need it.
"We can make a difference with research. We just need the funding and the resources to do it."