This seems to be a question we are routinely asking more and more at our multidisciplinary thoracic tumor board. Recently, we had a 42-year-old male newly diagnosed with squamous cell lung cancer and a few days later, a 34-year-old male diagnosed with small cell carcinoma of the lung at our facility. I have been a lung nurse navigator for 10 years at this same facility and 34 is definitely the youngest patient we have treated.
I know it happens and I know there are even younger lung cancer patients out there, but it seems in general we are seeing more and more lung cancer patients diagnosed at a younger age at our facility. Of note, we are a community-based hospital where these are local patients getting diagnosed, not a large academic site where patients are seeking us out and coming from afar for treatment.
As we know in the healthcare world, the answer is usually in the data and so I began researching the current national data as well as our facilityís data. According to the American Cancer Society, "Lung cancer mainly occurs in older people. About two out of three people diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older; fewer than 2% of all cases are found in people younger than 45. The average age at the time of diagnosis is about 70."
Most all reputable research I reviewed agreed with the average age of 70 to 72. When I looked at the data for our facility, I found that in the past 6 months, 45% of the lung cancer patients were less than 65 years old while 55% were 65 or older.
A report from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program of the National Cancer Institute from 2008≠2012 gives a more specific breakdown by percentage in 10-year increments. This gave a better "apples to apples" comparison. In this report, 31% of the patients were under 65, leaving 68% of the patients 65 years or older. Considering the fact that Iím comparing a 6-month period at our facility to a 4-year comparison on the SEER report, I imagine our data is somewhat comparable.
My next question is, if the data remains correct, why does it seem like we are seeing more and more lung cancer patients under 65 years old? In my search for an answer, I found an excellent example that brings great perspective to this question. An article titled, Lung Cancer in Young Adults, points out the fact that with such a large number of people diagnosed with lung cancer each year, even a small percentage can translate to many people being diagnosed within a certain age range.
The article notes that it's estimated that 224,210 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014 and 159,260 will die. Of these people, 1.2% to 6.2% are under the age of 40, and 13.4% are under the age of 50. A quick calculation reveals that roughly 30,000 people under the age of 50 will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014 and slightly over 21,000 young adults will die from the disease. As disheartening as those statistics are, they clarify that with so many young adults being diagnosed with lung cancer each year, we cannot avoid diagnosing a decent amount of them at our facility.
Though the data may not be changing drastically, there are simply too many young adults being diagnosed with lung cancer. It's inevitable that we are going to see these young patients. This leads me to my next area of exploration: what resources are available that focus on the specific needs of this population of patients? How can I prepare to navigate and help these patients in the best way possible?