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Joe Paterno has lung cancer: What are the risks?

November 18, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer, son Scott Paterno said in a statement.
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has been diagnosed with a treatable… (Rick Stewart / ALLSPORT )

It has not been Joe Paterno's month. The former Penn State football coach, recently fired in the midst of a child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, has been diagnosed with lung cancer, according to his son Scott Paterno.

It's unclear exactly what kind of cancer the 84-year-old has -- only that it's treatable and that it was diagnosed "during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness," the younger Paterno said in a statement.

But the earlier such cancers are caught, the better, said Dr. Clark Fuller, director of thoracic surgery at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. Often, though, cancers aren't caught until later stages, when symptoms begin to show -- so a chance detection is a lucky break.

The five-year life expectancy in lung cancer survival overall is around 10% to 15%, Fuller said. But for cancers caught and surgically removed in the earliest stage -- say, Stage 1A, when the tumor is still very small and hasn't yet spread to other parts of the body -- survival rates are 65% to 85%. "It's totally stage-dependent," Fuller said.

The most common risk factor for lung cancer is a history of smoking -- even if a patient quit decades earlier. "It's not uncommon for patients to quit and think they're no longer at risk," Fuller said. Paterno has never been known as a smoker.

Treatments may vary, but up to Stage 3A, it typically involves removing the entire lung lobe containing the cancer tumor (there are three lobes in the right lung, and two lobes in the left). At Stages 3G and 4, operating doesn't do much good because the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

It's not clear yet what Paterno's cancer is, what stage it's at and what treatment it may involve. But for those concerned about surgery risk for an octogenarian, Fuller said it's more about health than age.

"There's a difference between chronological age and physiological age," Fuller said. "There are 84-year-olds who can undergo a pulmonary operation ... and certain 50-year-olds I'd be very hesitant about."

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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