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Lung cancer screening helped one patient beat the odds

Making appointments has always been one of Kathryn Napier’s least favorite tasks. So when the 67-year-old Tinton Falls resident was referred by her primary care physician for lung cancer screening—one of several tests deemed appropriate for her—she wasn’t thrilled about putting yet another appointment on her to-do list. But pushing past her hesitance ended up giving the grandmother of four a new lease on life.

The screening test revealed that Kathryn had lung cancer. Fortunately, the tumor was small enough to be removed with minimally invasive surgery. She’s now cancer-free and was able to avoid chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which would have been necessary if her tumor had been detected at a later stage. “If Kathryn had not had this screening test, she would have gone about her life and one day would have likely experienced the coughing, shortness of breath or coughing up blood that’s symptomatic of lung cancer,” says Andrew Nguyen, MD, the Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus (MMCSC) thoracic surgeon and member of RWJBarnabas Health medical group who treated Kathryn.

“By then, her cancer may have been too advanced for surgical removal or a cure. Finding and treating her cancer early gives her a very good prognosis. She’s an example of why we’re raising awareness that lung cancer screening is lifesaving.”

A survival advantage

By far the leading cause of cancer death in Americans—surpassing deaths from colorectal, breast and prostate cancers combined—lung cancer is diagnosed in more than 228,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Unfortunately, most lung cancers are caught at later stages, dimming the chances for long-term survival. When lung cancer is diagnosed and treated at an early stage, however, the survival rate is more than 70 percent.

To improve the odds that cancer will be detected early, MMCSC established the Lung Cancer Screening Program. The Program features a patient navigator who coordinates care, smoking cessation services and access to comprehensive cancer care, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and clinical trials. (For eligibility criteria, see “Who Can Be Screened?”)

“Research has demonstrated a 20 percent mortality rate reduction in patients who had undergone low-dose chest computed tomography screening, as compared to patients screened with a conventional chest X-ray,” says Dr. Nguyen. For those who are eligible, the screening is covered by most insurance plans, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

Relieved and grateful 

Kathryn had robotic-assisted surgery in January. The upper lobe of her left lung and multiple lymph nodes in her chest were removed using small incisions. She has remained cancer-free with follow-up imaging, and after recovering from the surgery she happily returned to spending time with her grandchildren. Kathryn, who has stopped smoking with the help of medication, is relieved and grateful. “I’m so glad I had the screening,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky.”

Who can be screened?

• A smoker or former smoker ages 55 to 77

• A person who has a smoking history of at least 30 “pack/years” (packs per day multiplied by the number of years a person has smoked)

• Current smokers

• Former smokers who have quit within the last 15 years

• No symptoms of lung cancer

• No chest CT scan in the past year

Don't miss these tests!

In addition to lung cancer screening, Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus (MMCSC) offers the following important tests to help detect disease early:

Breast cancer: Women who are at average risk of developing the disease should have annual mammograms starting at age 40. Women at high risk may need to be screened earlier.

Colorectal cancer: Adults ages 50 to 75 should have a colonoscopy, in which a physician examines the colon and rectum for polyps and cancer using a thin, flexible, lighted tube. For people at average risk, the test should be performed every 10 years.

Osteoporosis: Women who are 65 or older—and younger postmenopausal women at high risk for the bone-thinning disease—should be screened with a bone density scan called DXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry). Men who are 70 or older should also be screened.

Vascular: This screening test includes an ultrasound exam for aortic aneurysms and carotid artery disease, as well as a noninvasive measure of blood flow in the legs. Consider screening if you’re 65 or older or have a history of smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or a family or personal history of heart disease.

To learn more about the Lung Cancer Screening Program at Monmouth Medical Center, call: 732.923.7966.