St. Louis (KSDK) - Every year, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.
More than 226 thousand new cases will be diagnosed this year alone.
But how doctors treat the disease is improving.
It's the subject of this week's 8 Ways to Prevent Cancer segment.
"We understand what genes are altered or messed up, technical term for that is mutation in lung cancer," says Dr. Ramaswamy Govindan, a lung cancer specialist at Siteman Cancer Center.
That understanding led to a huge change in the treatment of lung cancer. 10 or 15 years ago, patients got chemotherapy drugs that would kill any growing cell.
"But today we try to find out what exactly turned on the cancer cell," says Dr. Govindan. "As you know, a cancer cell is nothing but a normal cell that keeps going on and on."
Specifically, about 10 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked, and these are the patients who are typically found to have an altered gene. Science still doesn't know why.
But every lung cancer patient is screened for the gene because the treatment is so effective.
"The improvement these patients see is spectacular," says Dr. Govindan. "Pretty heartwarming. I've had patients feel better overnight when they take these medicines."
But the bad news is, the genes eventually find a way to work around the therapy.
"I think the future is studying the genes, seeing what is altered and come up with more therapies based on that," says Dr. Govindan.