Tom Burrell is a three-time cancer survivor whose recent lung cancer treatment was navigated by the Lung Watch program based at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. (Staff Photo: Jennifer Parks)
ALBANY — Until recently, there was no generally accepted screening test for lung cancer, making it difficult to detect the cancer at its most curable stage. Now, a national panel of medical experts is recommending that heavy smokers and ex-smokers get routinely screened with low-dose computed tomography (CT) scans, which are better able to detect the tiniest lung cancers at an earlier, more curable stage.
As a way to help promote screenings, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital enlisted the assistance of other agencies to fight against lung cancer in Southwest Georgia by offering a pilot program that began early this year known as Lung Watch — which is dedicated to helping individuals at risk for lung cancer detect the disease early and get treatment quickly.
Lung cancer kills more people each year than breast, colon, pancreatic and prostrate cancers combined. It is also one of the most difficult to detect before it is too late, as it is typically not symptomatic until the disease has progressed significantly.
Over the past 30 years, Tom Burrell has come face-to-face with skin, colon and lung cancer. Each time, physicians have been able to prevent the potential spread of each disease at early stages. His most recent bout with cancer was the least likely of the three to be detected early in the most treatable stage.
Through the Lung Watch program, patients who meet a certain criteria can be eligible to receive a free CT scan to see if there is a lesion that needs to be removed or treated. A long-time smoker, Burrell was informed of the program by his primary care physician, Dr. Ralf Augenstein. He met all of the qualifications to participate in Lung Watch.
“(Augenstein) said there was a suspicious spot on the lung,” he said of the day the results came in. “He said ‘It’s a small spot, but it’s suspicious. It needs to be checked out.’”
After having a nodule showed up on a low-dose CT, administered and read by radiologist Dr. Ben Abbott, Burrell’s case was presented at a multidisciplinary chest conference. The weekly meeting includes a dozen physicians including pulmonologists, radiologists, hematologist oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists and surgeons, as well as a representative from the tumor registry and the nurse navigator, who meet to discuss every lung case.
“The patient was asymptomatic so there would be no indication for a need to scan him for any issues,” Augenstein said. “Without Lung Watch, the cancer on Mr. Burrell’s lung would not have been detected in a curable stage.”
Burrell was then referred to pulmonologist Dr. Ramana Rao. Rao utilized one of the newest technologies, electromagnetic navigation bronchoscopy, to help localize this lesion.
Surgeon Dr. Curtis Quinn took on the case. Quinn used minimally invasive robotic surgery to remove half of Burrell’s right lung as an aggressive lung cancer resection to achieve the best chance of cure. This type of surgery allows the physician to perform the procedure with the least amount of pain and only tiny incisions. After surgery, it was determined that the lung cancer was entirely resected before it could spread and hBurrell would not need any other additional treatments, just follow up X-rays.
“I’m feeling so good I’m thinking about (taking out) the other side,” Burrell quipped. “I’m looking forward to going onto the golf course.”
While the pain was more intense this go around, the most recent cancer battle was easier for him to navigate in terms of the treatment process, he said.
“Yeah,” he said when asked if the process was easier this time. “I wish it (this service) were available to everyone in the world. “Lung cancer is fast moving. Once you have symptoms, it’s just a matter of how long they can keep you alive.”
Following his experiences with cancer, and winning the battle to quit smoking, one piece of guidance Burrell gives is to take advantage of wellness screenings — especially in an area that people might not always get regular care.
“Walking around and not knowing something is wrong with you is the most dangerous thing in the world,” he said.
Lung Watch is having an impact and making a difference in the lives of people across the region. As of the end of June, 276 people have participated in the program — resulting in four cancers being found.
Since the inception of Lung Watch, Quinn himself has been involved these cases in which lung cancer was caught. Once screens are done, surgeons are able to weed out who has really suspicious lesions and treat or cure the cancer surgically using various techniques deemed appropriate based on the circumstances.
“It has opened up the ability to treat patients we couldn’t before,” Quinn said. “We identify patients and radiate just the cancer.”
The program, Quinn said, has also opened up the opportunity to see patients and follow through with them — something that often can not be done in a cancer that has spread by the time it is caught.
On average, one of about every 200 scans will detect something — meaning that the rate in which cancers are being found through Lung Watch is above the national average, Quinn said.
“I’d like to get the word to primary care physicians and their patients, so the patients can ask about it,” the surgeon said. “It takes a long time to get from that abnormal scan to get ready for surgery. I hope we can streamline it so we do the biopsy within a week, and by two weeks, they’ve had surgery and in recovery. We will eventually reach that state.”