Sarah Cannon - May 06, 2022

If you have non-small cell lung cancer, knowing if you’re ALK-positive or not can influence your treatment options. Here’s some more information about ALK-positive lung cancer and the treatment options you can expect.

1.  ALK is a gene that’s present as an embryo

ALK stands for anaplastic lymphoma kinase. ALK is a gene that’s present in the body as an embryo. It helps with gut and nervous system development.

The ALK gene gets “turned off” while you’re still in the womb. However, if the gene is turned on again and joins with another gene, this can cause an ALK rearrangement or ALK fusion. If this fusion happens, it can cause ALK-positive lung cancer.

2.  ALK-positive cancer isn’t very common

Only about 4% of lung cancers are ALK-positive. It most often occurs in non-small cell lung cancer. People who are ALK-positive may be more likely to be nonsmokers and younger than the average patient with lung cancer.

3.  You’ll need testing to know if you have ALK-positive lung cancer

To know for sure if you have ALK-positive lung cancer, your oncologist will run tests on a biopsy of your tumor tissue or your blood. These tests may include:

  • Immunohistochemistry, which checks for specific proteins in your cells
  • FISH analysis, which checks your tissue sample under a microscope for changes in your chromosomes (threadlike structures in your body that are made of DNA)
  • Next-generation sequencing (also called comprehensive biomarker testing), which looks at your tissue sample for potential cancer biomarkers (changes in your DNA that can cause tumors to grow)
  • Liquid biopsy, which checks your blood for tumor DNA

These tests help your oncologist learn more about your type of cancer so that they can recommend the best treatment options for you.

4.  There are specific treatments for ALK-positive lung cancer

If you have early-stage ALK-positive lung cancer, your oncologist will likely recommend surgery and radiation. You may also be prescribed a specific type of chemotherapy (pemetrexed chemotherapy) that’s effective at treating ALK-positive cancer. You may receive chemotherapy before surgery, after surgery, or during radiation.

If you have stage IV ALK-positive lung cancer, you’ll most likely be prescribed a tyrosine kinase inhibitor or ALK-inhibitor pill. This pill tends to be most effective for one to two years. After that time, your doctor may recommend other treatment options, such as:

  • Increasing your current ALK-inhibitor dosage
  • Another ALK-inhibitor medication
  • Pemetrexed-based chemotherapy
  • Clinical trials
  • Radiation

If you have questions about ALK-positive lung cancer, or are interested in learning about clinical trials for ALK-positive lung cancer or other types of non-small cell lung cancer, call askSARAH at 844-482-4812 or visit askSARAH online.