“Of the patients who are diagnosed, very few are in the earliest stages. We have to work towards improved methods of early detection,” says Dr. Spitz. “Developing more predictive risk models is a good place to start.” – Margaret Spitz
Few people in the world know lung cancer statistics as well as Dr. Margaret Spitz. From age-dependent incidence rates to the effects of environmental and genetic factors, Dr. Spitz is an expert in the field. She knows that once patients are diagnosed with lung cancer, it is often too late. “In fact, while lung cancer makes up only 15% of cancer diagnoses, it is the leading cause of cancer deaths,” she says.
While those statistics are terrifying for patients, they are also huge motivators for Dr. Spitz, who was founding chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, before joining Baylor College of Medicine in 2009 to provide strategic direction in growing their population sciences program. Now she is also providing strategic direction to LUNGevity, as a member of its Scientific Advisory Board. Dr. Spitz is wielding her exceptional mastery of lung cancer epidemiology to develop ways to identify genetic and non-genetic risk factors so that earlier diagnosis is possible, when the cancer is the most treatable.
“Of the patients who are diagnosed, very few are in the earliest stages. We have to work towards improved methods of early detection,” says Dr. Spitz. “Developing more predictive risk models is a good place to start.”
Her approach sounds simple: create a risk factor model that identifies patients at highest risk for lung cancer and then monitor them closely. Yet developing an effective model that accounts for the vast array of risk factors, such as smoking history, family history of lung cancer and prior respiratory disease, is a monumental task requiring decades of experimentation and testing.
Nevertheless, Dr. Spitz, a world-renowned researcher with over 350 peer-reviewed publications to her name, has developed one such tool. Now scientists around the globe are studying her model in order to validate it as a risk prediction tool for lung cancer.
But Dr. Spitz is careful to note that we cannot win the fight against lung cancer in the laboratory alone. Non-profit organizations, like LUNGevity, are critical to debunking the myths surrounding lung cancer and raising public awareness. “We have allowed people, even the cancer community, to blame the victims of lung cancer,” she notes. “Compared to breast and other cancers, patients with lung cancer have often been denied support and social programs that are available to other cancer patients.”
But that is changing. Because even in the area of patient advocacy, Dr. Spitz says, “The key lies in the numbers. And now we have great numbers. This is a great time to be involved with LUNGevity; there is now even more momentum to make real changes through lung cancer research.”