Lung cancer kills more Canadians each year than any other malignancy, but a national advocacy organization says the disease is an under-addressed public-health concern.

Lung Cancer Canada says the disease causes more than 28 per cent of Canadian cancer deaths — more than those from breast, colon and prostate cancer combined.

Lung Cancer Screening

Lung Cancer Canada wants a national program to screen those at highest risk of lung cancer with CT scans. (The Associated Press)

An estimated 20,000 Canadians die each year from lung cancer, but it receives only seven per cent of cancer-specific research funding and under one per cent of cancer donations.

Lung Cancer Canada is calling for a national screening program, increased research funding and greater access to new life-prolonging drugs.

Oncologist Dr. Natasha Leighl of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto says lung cancer carries a stigma because its most common cause is smoking.

'I think it's important to realize that a growing number of people with lung cancer are people who smoked as teenagers and then quit when they were very young.'-  Dr. Natasha Leighl

But she says about 15 per cent of people who get lung cancer never smoked and some develop it through exposure to radon gas or work-related carcinogens.

One in 12 Canadians is at risk for lung cancer in their lifetime — both smokers and never-smokers alike, said Leighl, who is also president of Lung Cancer Canada.

"As someone who works in this area, I'm always so surprised that Canadians are so supportive of other smoking-related diseases like heart disease and stroke, and yet lung cancer seems to bear all the blame associated with smoking," she said Thursday.

"I think it's important to realize that a growing number of people with lung cancer are people who smoked as teenagers and then quit when they were very young. There's a growing number of never-smokers with this disease, and this is something that really affects all Canadians and is definitely worth people supporting, irrespective of the smoking issue."

Excitement surrounds new treatment

Leighl said there have been significant strides forward in the fight against lung cancer. The five-year survival rate has risen to 18 per cent and there have been a number of breakthroughs in understanding what drives the development of lung cancer at the molecular level.

That's led to new drugs that target genetic abnormalities within cancer cells, she said.

Other drugs, which are in clinical trials but available for doctors to prescribe, act to help the immune system recognize and kill cancer cells.

"This is not chemotherapy," she said of the immune-based therapy. "You don't lose your hair, you don't get sick to your stomach. This is really about harnessing the immune system and its ability to kill cancer.

"We've seen dramatic [tumour] shrinkages in patients with lung cancer. I've had patients who've been on those treatments for more than a year. They've been chemotherapy-free where even last year I would have had to put them on chemotherapy. That would have been the standard.

"So there's a lot of excitement and potential promise."

Lung Cancer Canada wants a national program to screen people with the highest risk of lung cancer, using low-dose computerized tomography, or CT, scans for earlier detection of the disease.

An estimated 1,250 lives could be saved each year with such screening and pilot programs need to be set up by all provinces, so Canadians across the country have access to them, Leighl said.

"This is something the government needs to move on quickly."