Published on February 07, 2014

Catching lung cancer before it’s too late

Early signs of lung cancer can be silent.

That’s why Mercy Fitzgerald offers early lung-cancer screening.

Michael DraytonIt was last February when the chest pain and dizziness started. Michael Drayton, a 61-year-old Philadelphia man, called his primary-care doctor, who promptly sent him to the Emergency Room, thinking he may have experienced a mild heart attack.

A CT scan was performed, which revealed a suspicious spot on Michael’s right lung. A few days later the devastating diagnosis came back: it was lung cancer.

“Of course I was scared. I thought about death, I thought how there’s no cure for lung cancer. More than anything I thought, 'Why didn’t you have this checked out earlier?’” Michael recalls.

It’s not uncommon for lung cancer to be diagnosed while a patient is being evaluated for another suspected illness, according to Mercy Fitzgerald oncologist Eugene Choi, MD, who treated Michael.

“For a lot of patients, their lung cancer was found when they came in to be treated for pneumonia, or had a chest X-ray for something else,” explains Dr. Choi. “Often there are no symptoms of lung cancer in its earliest stages, so it goes undetected.”

And by the time most patients do develop symptoms of lung cancer — such as weight loss, coughing up blood and chest or rib pain — the disease is progressed and the chance of a cure is diminished, he added.

Treatment begins

But Michael was lucky: Doctors found his cancer while it was still stage 1. Mercy Fitzgerald thoracic surgeon Jose M. Maquilan, MD, performed surgery to remove the cancerous tumor. Michael also had six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy.

“We gave radiation along with chemotherapy to prevent tumor recurrence because the tumor was going through the lining of lung,” explains Radiation Oncologist Usha Babaria, MD, who was also part of the team that treated Michael.

Dr. Maquilan gave high praise to Michael’s primary-care doctor for sending him to have the CT scan. Mercy Fitzgerald works in partnership with primary-care doctors, who are often the very first step in getting a treatment plan set up for patients.

“These primary-care doctors are a crucial link in the process,” says Dr. Maquilan. “They are the ones who first send patients in to be screened.” Michael, who was a heavy smoker, also quit smoking. “I was smoking a pack-and-a-half-a-day for 30 years,” recalls the retired construction worker. “But when I heard ‘cancer,’ I stopped.”

Healthy Lung Program Launches

To reach patients like Michael, Mercy Fitzgerald launched its Healthy Lung Program in January. As part of the Healthy Lung Program, patients who are at a high risk of developing lung cancer, such as long-term smokers, can now be screened specifically for the disease.

“We want patients to say to themselves: ‘I am 55 and I have been smoking for 30 years and I’m coughing a lot – maybe I qualify’,” says Joy Hepkins RN, OCN, an Oncology Nurse Navigator at Mercy Fitzgerald. “We are encouraging these patients to get screened.”

The aim of the Healthy Lung Program is to detect lung cancer in its earliest stages, before physical symptoms arise. “Often by the time lung cancer is found, it is quite advanced, meaning there is a less of a chance for curing it,” says Dr. Choi. “And that’s why the emphasis on early screenings is so important.”

In Remission Now

This fall, Michael was given the news he’d longed to hear: the cancer appeared to be in remission. “I feel back to my normal self,” he says. “I’m breathing better, I have no more chest pain and no more dizziness.” And he’s the first to admit it wasn’t easy to quit smoking, but he's glad he did. “I still get cravings, but I just wait it out and it goes away in 5 minutes,” he says. “This experience scared me to death. I have 14 grandkids and I want to be around for them for a long time.”