Doctor fights perception that lung cancer has to be fatal

Sacramento BeeMay 2, 2010 

Dr. Costanzo Di Perna, a thoracic surgeon, seeks to dispel the notion that lung cancer means certain death.

The prevailing attitude among victims of the disease and some doctors, he said, is "nihilistic."

"They think everybody dies. It's not true. We have to prove that it's an untruth, when lung cancer is caught early and taken out early," he said.

Since January, Di Perna has been making his case — using technology that allows doctors to zero in on tiny lesions that could potentially grow into massive, deadly tumors. The idea is to find the tumors before they grow.

Currently, only one in six cases of lung cancer are caught in the earliest, most curable stage, according to the Lung Cancer Alliance.

The group says the disease kills an average of 437 people a day in the United States — more than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.

Yet considerably less funding goes into lung cancer research. In 2008, the federal National Cancer Institute spent $248 million on lung cancer research — compared with $285 million for prostate cancer and $573 million for breast cancer.

Unlike mammograms for breast cancer or colonoscopies for intestinal cancers, there are no systematic screening programs for lung cancer. Many early stage lung cancers are discovered by luck.

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