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Lung cancer relapse not unusual, specialist says

Jerry Remy talked about his recurrence of cancer.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It’s not uncommon for lung cancer to come back — even among patients who have had a cancerous lesion successfully removed in the past, according to a specialist at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Jerry Remy announced Monday he is facing a relapse of lung cancer, the fourth time in a decade the longtime Red Sox announcer has faced the disease.

“Even patients who get operated on for early stage lung cancer, there is still a significant portion that develop a relapse,” said Dr. Pasi Janne, director of thoracic oncology at Dana-Farber.

Slightly more than half of patients — 55 percent — survive five years after a lung cancer diagnosis if the disease has not spread beyond the lungs, according to data from the American Cancer Society. Those odds are cut in half, to 27 percent, if the cancer has spread to surrounding tissue or lymph nodes.


Janne, who is not Remy’s physician and has not seen his medical record, said the best way to cure lung cancer is to surgically remove it.

“It’s always our first hope,” Janne said.

“If you cut it out from one spot and it appears in another spot, it’s either a relapse or a second new cancer,” said Janne, also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Having one cancer in your lifetime puts you at a higher risk of getting a new cancer.”

Remy, 64, underwent surgery in 2008 to remove a cancerous area from his lung. In 2013, Remy announced he’d suffered a relapse, with cancer found on a different spot in his lungs. He was diagnosed with another bout of cancer in 2015, and underwent radiation.

Remy was about a decade younger than the typical lung cancer patient when he faced the disease for the first time. Usually, patients are in their late 60s or early 70s, Janne said.


Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

There is, however, hope, Janne said.

“The number of treatments we have today is vastly greater than we had 10 years ago,” Janne said. “We are certainly making headway.”

One of the more promising treatments is immunotherapy, according to Wen Xue, an assistant professor of cancer biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Cancer fools the immune system into thinking cancer cells are normal, so the immune system doesn’t fight the invasion, allowing it to spread, Xue said. Immunotherapy is used to reawaken the immune system to fight the attack, he said.

“With the latest immunotherapy, there are success stories of some patients [from clinical trials] surviving more than 10 years,” Xue said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.