Advanced lung cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence

Jessica Donington, MD, and patient in DCAM clinic
Thoracic surgeon Jessica Donington, MD, left, is an expert in the surgical treatment of lung cancer.

Every three minutes, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with lung cancer, which causes more deaths than the other most common cancers ­­— prostate, colon and breast — combined. Fifteen percent of those people never smoked, and 60% are former smokers. Twenty years ago, getting diagnosed with lung cancer was essentially a death sentence.

Today, 80 percent of people with stage 1 lung cancer will be cured, and survival has increased dramatically for those with advanced lung cancer, thanks to better insights into the disease, new therapies, advanced technology and less invasive surgery.

The pace of progress in treating lung cancer has been astounding. Therapies used just five years ago to treat patients with advanced disease are already obsolete. A more comprehensive understanding of lung cancer biology today has led to novel targeted therapies and genomic profiling of tumors so treatment can be customized for each patient and their cancer.

Developing personalized therapies requires patient-centered care by a multidisciplinary team that includes specialists in pulmonology, pathology, radiation oncology, medical oncology and surgical oncology. UChicago Medicine provides the most effective treatment that is the least toxic for each patient. Too often, many people are overtreated because therapy isn’t tied to their tumor type.

The pace of progress in treating lung cancer has been astounding.


Research and clinical trials at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center have also created opportunities to offer every patient with non-small-cell lung cancer immunotherapy, including innovative drugs that block proteins that cancer cells use to disarm an immune response, thereby enabling disease-fighting T cells to attack, shrink or destroy tumor cells.

UChicago Medicine lung cancer experts continue to research ways to reduce treatment toxicity and to understand why some tumors resist treatment so we can find new therapies to treat them.

Another huge advancement is screening for lung cancer using low-dose computed tomography (CT), which can decrease lung cancer mortality by 26 percent in men and 61 percent in women.

At UChicago Medicine, we have the most advanced radiology capabilities in the region, which allows us to more precisely detect very small cancerous abnormalities or nodules in the lung. Screening allows physicians to find lung cancer early, at a more curable state. Multiple new treatment strategies for advanced disease are turning lung cancer into a chronic disease — not a fatal one — for many more people than ever before.

Lung cancer screening can help diagnose lung cancer in its earlier stages and improve outcomes for patients. UChicago Medicine is a Lung Cancer Screening Center designated by the American College of Radiologists. This important distinction signifies that the program has met rigorous quality standards to provide safe and effective lung cancer screening services. Screening is recommended for adults aged 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.

Jessica S. Donington, MD, a nationally recognized expert in lung cancer, is the inaugural chief of the newly created section of thoracic surgery. She directs a team of surgeons who are experts in lung cancer surgery and, therefore, can perform robotic or other minimally invasive lung resections, giving patients smaller incisions, shorter recovery times and fewer complications after surgery.

Donington wants to ease access and streamline care for patients with lung cancer. She is collaborating with oncologist Patel and colleagues from pulmonary medicine and supportive care to create a multidisciplinary team with a single clinic and a shared educational and research infrastructure.

“Most lung cancer patients need to see various specialists during their treatment,” she says. “A multidisciplinary team will be able to care for them from screening and diagnosis through treatment and into survivorship.”

Recognized for High Performance in Lung Cancer Surgery

In its 2023-24 rankings of the nation's best hospitals, U.S. News & World Report ranked UChicago Medicine #1 in Illinois for cancer care and rated us as "high performing" for lung cancer surgery.

Learn more about our rankings
Jessica Donington, MD

Jessica Donington, MD, MSCR

Jessica S. Donington, MD, is an expert thoracic surgeon who treats the full spectrum of lung, esophageal and mediastinal conditions. Her focus is on the comprehensive and multidisciplinary care of benign and malignant chest diseases.

Learn more about Dr. Donington