(NEW YORK) -- The family of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno says the lung cancer with which he has been diagnosed is a "treatable form" -- though statistics suggest that even in the best of circumstances, the disease poses a serious threat.
"Last weekend my father was diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness," Paterno's son Scott said in a statement issued Friday. "He is currently undergoing treatment and his doctors are optimistic that he will make a full recovery."
Last week, Penn State's board of trustees fired Paterno, the winningest coach in the history of NCAA Division 1 football, in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal surrounding his defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Paterno, considered a legend by many tied to the school, has been embroiled in the scandal based on suggestions that he knew of Sandusky's alleged behavior and failed to do what was necessary to properly report it.
The suggestion that Paterno's cancer is treatable, if true, suggests that it was caught in its early stages before it had a chance to spread. According to statistics from the National Cancer Institute, 52.5 percent of patients whose lung cancer is detected before it has spread are alive five years after it is found.
But only 15 percent of patients are lucky enough to have their cancer detected this early -- and the numbers drop precipitously from there. For the 22 percent of patients whose cancer is only detected after it has spread to the lymph nodes, the chance of being alive five years later is 24.3 percent. And for the 56 percent whose cancer has metastasized, the five-year survival rate is only 3.6 percent.
The upshot: The cancer is far more likely to be in a treatable form for less than four in 10 patients -- and even then, it can be an uphill battle.
At least 20 of the nation's top medical centers are trying to beat this curve by setting up lung cancer screening programs using computerized tomography, or CT. Through these programs, patients considered to be at high risk of lung cancer can be screened, hopefully allowing doctors to detect their disease as early as possible, before it has a chance to spread.
The approach just might work, at least according to research released in June and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The results of the seven-year study offer the first solid evidence that screening with CT scans could reduce lung cancer deaths by as much as 20 percent in high-risk groups, such as heavy smokers older than 55.
Another important factor in the survivability of lung cancer is whether the cancer is classified as "small cell" or "non-small cell." Of these, small cell is the more aggressive. According to NCI data, patients who are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer tend to have a better chance of survival, at least when the cancer is caught in its earlier stages. In this area, the numbers are slightly more forgiving: Only about 15 percent of the estimated 221,130 Americans who will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year will have the small cell variety, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
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