When Vacaville realtor Veronica “Ronnie” Link received a flyer in the mail offering a low cost lung cancer screening, she didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. Although she no longer smoked, she looked forward to the test’s assurance that she was as healthy as she felt.
She never expected a cancer diagnosis. But thanks to her chance encounter with a screening offer, the NorthBay Cancer Center found her lung cancer at an early stage and referred her for treatment. She considers herself cured.
Lung cancer is one of the greatest challenges the cancer community faces today, mainly because early screening has been limited. Lung cancer usually is not diagnosed until a patient has symptoms, and by then the survival rate is very low. Smoking cessation is the most important thing you can do to decrease the risk of lung cancer. But for those who have quit after smoking for many years, the risk is still significant. Ronnie, 64, had smoked for 40 years, although less than a pack a day. When she finally quit two years ago, she thought she had avoided the pitfalls of long-term tobacco use.
“When I was growing up, everyone smoked,” Ronnie says. “Smoking meant you were an adult. It wasn’t until my grandchildren started asking about my smoking that I realized I needed to quit.”
With the help of a nicotine patch, she kicked the addiction in three months.
Last June, NorthBay Medical Center and the NorthBay Cancer Center began offering low dose CT lung scans to former smokers who are patients of the Center for Primary Care and who meet the criteria of being at high risk for lung cancer. Ronnie was one of the first patients to participate in the screening.
When her initial scan revealed a shadow, she was referred to pulmonologist Dr. Maqbool Ahmed. He thought she might have a lung infection so she began a course of antibiotics. Five weeks later, a second scan showed the shadow remained. He explained her options, which included a biopsy, a PET Scan, and surgery.
She underwent a PET scan at NorthBay Medical Center and received the unwelcome diagnosis of lung cancer. Two days later she met with cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Samer Kanaan, a specialist in thoracic oncology. He removed her entire upper right lobe, which is the most common surgery for lung cancer.
“Fortunately, Ronnie’s cancer was caught at Stage 1 – making it very curable,” says Dr. Kanaan. “I’m convinced that this type of lung cancer screening saves lives.”
Patients die of lung cancer at a rate greater than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined, according to Dr. Kanaan. That’s because lung cancer does not have the screening protocols of the other three types of cancer.
Ronnie was playing golf just a month after her surgery. Her follow-up care includes a lung scan every six months. She’s so grateful for the early screening test that she wants to make it available to others who might not be able to afford it.
“I’m working to create a local foundation that can help low-income Solano county residents have access to early lung cancer screening,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to miss a lifesaving test because of finances.”