Patti W Patti W’s Lifesaving Lung Cancer Screening

Patti had been a smoker for most of her life until she quit in 2012.

Patti Wolff, 75, of Toms River, laughs when she’s told she’s the “poster child” for early cancer screening. But she knows how lucky she is.

When it comes to cancer, prevention is best, and catching it early—when there’s the best chance of successful treatment—is a close second. Patti was doubly lucky when screening caught not one, but two different cancers. The result was that both of her cancers were caught so early that she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation to treat them.

High-Risk History

The first screening was a routine colonoscopy. Because Patti knew she had a family history that put her at higher risk—her mother and grandmother had both had colon cancer—Patti was conscientious about having the test on the recommended schedule, even though she’d never had any symptoms.

“In 2016, my gastroenterologist found cancer when doing a routine colonoscopy,” Patti recalls. “They caught it early, and I had surgery to get it taken out. I didn’t have to have any chemotherapy or radiation.”

That was a wonderful outcome. However, her medical oncologist, Stuart Leitner, MD, of Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center (CBMC) in Livingston, was considering all of Patti’s risk factors. Patti had been a smoker for most of her life until she quit in 2012 after having back surgery. Because of her history, Dr. Leitner recommended that she join CBMC’s International Early Lung Cancer Action Program.

The program involves a yearly, noninvasive, low-dose CT scan and has been used to help researchers develop guidelines for early lung cancer screening.

“Some people think, ‘I’ve stopped smoking, so my risk of cancer should be low.’ We don’t know exactly how long former smokers continue to be at risk, but for now current guidelines recommend screening for 15 years after they have quit smoking,” says Killol Patel, MD, Director of Interventional Pulmonology at CBMC and a member of RWJBarnabas Medical Group, who heads the screening program.

A Timely Trip

Starting in 2017, Patti began having annual low-dose CT scans to screen for lung cancer. “I originally lived in Bergen County, and then we moved down to the Jersey shore,” she says. “I went for the CT scan for several years, and then last year I gave them a hard time. I told them it was too far to travel and I wasn’t going to come anymore.”

Rebecca Cerrone, RN, the nurse navigator of the program, knew that continuing to have scans was important and worked hard to persuade Patti. “I was after her,” recalls Cerrone. Cerrone tried a variety of tactics, such as cajoling Patti by suggesting she make the day fun. “I said, ‘Come and have lunch. Spend the day up here.’”

“She hounded me!” says Patti, “and thank God she did.”

Patti made the trip up from Toms River for her lung cancer screening last year. That’s when the CT scan detected a suspicious nodule, which turned out to be lung cancer.

“I was very, very shocked,” says Patti, who hadn’t experienced any symptoms. “But I had faith in the doctors and told myself everything would be OK.” Her lung cancer had been detected at stage I, before it had spread elsewhere in the body.

Patti needed surgery, which was performed by Subroto Paul, MD, Section Chief of Thoracic Surgery at CBMC, Director of Thoracic Surgical Services at RWJBarnabas Health and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.

“Because we caught the cancer early, Patti didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation,” Dr. Paul explains. “However, with a malignancy such as she had, part of the lung had to be excised.”

The procedure was done with minimally invasive robot-assisted surgery. “She was able to leave the hospital in a couple of days and return to her regular activities with minimal pain,” says Dr. Paul.

Patti will continue to have regular low-dose CT scans as part of follow-up surveillance to make sure that if the cancer ever recurs, it’s caught early.

What To Know About Early Lung Cancer Screening

Lung cancer often has no symptoms until it’s at a late stage, and only 16 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. However, early detection in high-risk people through low-dose CT scanning can decrease lung cancer mortality by 14 to 20 percent.

To be eligible for the International Early Lung Cancer Action Program at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, patients must meet the requirements set by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force:

  • Currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
  • Between 50 and 80 years old.
  • Have a history of at least 20 “pack years.” (One pack year is the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes—one pack—per day for a year.)

For current smokers, the screening program can provide smoking cessation counseling.

To learn more about the International Early Lung Cancer Action Program at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center.