People react with shock when Elizabeth Dessureault tells them she has lung cancer. For the vibrant young Ottawa mother, whose main focus this week was her toddler’s second Halloween, that is the point.
While she undergoes treatment for non-small cell lung cancer, the 27-year-old lifelong non-smoker has made it her mission to change the conversation about lung cancer and who gets it through her blog, From Lizzie’s Lungs (fromlizzieslungs.com).
Hers is one of the new faces of lung cancer — young, female and a non-smoker. If it happened to her, she says, it can happen to anyone.
“Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer,” she says. “I want my story to help spread awareness and end stigma. I want my story to provide hope for others battling the disease.”
When she was diagnosed in April 2015, Dessureault was offered very little hope. The former teacher was pregnant with her son at the time and was told neither she nor her unborn child might survive. Eighteen months later, Dessureault is enjoying every minute with her son, Jack, and feeling positive. “I am feeling really, really good.”
But the overall picture for Canadian women with lung cancer is not positive. And it is a worrying trend that health officials can’t fully explain.
Canadian women are falling behind their peers from other countries when it comes to surviving lung cancer, warns a new report from Lung Cancer Canada.
Not only are Canadian women with lung cancer faring worse than those in 17 other countries, according to recent research from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, but a 2013 study found Canada had the third highest female lung cancer death rate out of 33 peer countries.
“Canadian women are losing more years of potential life from lung cancer than women in most other peer countries,” says the report released Tuesday. Peer countries include Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The report, released Nov. 1 to mark the beginning of lung cancer awareness month, contains more worrying statistics about Canadians and lung cancer — that Canadians wait longer for approval of and access to costly new treatments than patients in the U.S. — against a backdrop of new advances in drugs and diagnostics.
Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer for men and women and yet receives a small portion of research funds and attention. It is the cause of roughly 25 per cent of cancer deaths in Canada every year and receives about seven per cent of research dollars. Breast cancer, on the other hand, which marks October as its pink-laden awareness month, causes about seven per cent of cancer deaths and receives about 25 per cent of research dollars. Overall, although it is seldom viewed as a women’s cancer, lung cancer kills more women each year than breast, ovarian and cervical cancer combined.
In 2016, more than 28,000 Canadians were diagnosed with lung cancer. Men’s lung cancer rates have long been higher than women’s, but now they are similar. Men’s death rates due to cancer have, meanwhile, been declining since the 1980s. Death rates for women have not decreased significantly, which is partly — but not fully — explained by the fact that women’s smoking rates declined later and slower than men’s.
Advocates have long battled stigma and indifference, which they say results in fewer funding dollars, less support and poorer outcomes for patients with lung cancer than some other cancers. In a disease in which survival rates are often grim because it is diagnosed so late, there have been fewer survivors to tell their stories, which makes patient advocates such as Dessureault stand out.
Along with the worrisome trend for Canadian women with lung cancer and evidence Canadians are waiting longer for expensive drugs to be approved, there was game-changing news in 2016 for lung cancer patients, said Dr. Paul Wheatley-Price, medical oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa and president of Lung Cancer Canada.
The Canadian Task Force on Preventative Health Care released guidelines this year recommending annual lung cancer screening for high-risk adults between 55 and 74 using low-dose computed tomography screening. Ontario will set up one of its three pilot projects next year in Ottawa.
Wheatley-Price said screening — which resulted in a 20 per cent drop in mortality in the U.S. when introduced — will make a huge difference. More than half of the patients he sees at The Ottawa Hospital already have advanced incurable lung cancer by the time they are diagnosed. The life expectancy for most patients diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer is less than a year.
New drug therapies also have the potential to change the prognosis for patients, he said, but Canadians are waiting a frustratingly long time for approval of new drugs. Some of his patients, said Wheatley-Price, die while drugs that could prolong their lives are in the pipeline waiting to be made available.
Some of the new cutting edge drugs are approved quickly in the U.S. and made available to patients there, but the same approval can take months and years in Canada. Some patients spend tens of thousands of dollars of their own money for the treatments, but for most, that is not an option.
Wheatley-Price sees patients benefiting from some of the new treatments during clinical trials, but said it is frustrating to see the approval processes taking so long.
“It is a very exciting time to be an oncologist in lung cancer. When I see patients benefiting, it is wonderful. But it is frustrating not to be able to use them.”
As Dessureault works to raise awareness and understanding about lung cancer — something advocates say is long overdue — Wheatley-Price said he would also like governments and decision makers to understand the impact of the long delays in drug approvals on individual lives.
Dessureault, who has been on a clinical drug trial, says she is fortunate to be able to benefit from innovations in lung cancer therapy. “But not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone gets treatments when they need them. I don’t believe it is fair that anyone should have to wait.”
The annual Ottawa fundraiser in support of lung cancer, An Evening of Hope, takes place at the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park on Nov. 24. (aneveningofhope.ca).