Cathy D’Amico, lung nurse navigator at the Phoebe Cancer Center, is acting as the face of the Lung Watch program currently being piloted at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. (Staff Photo: Jennifer Parks)
ALBANY — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death and the second most common cancer among both men and women in the United States. Until recently, there was no generally accepted screening test for lung cancer.
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 is enlisting the assistance of other agencies to fight against lung cancer in Southwest Georgia by offering a pilot program known as Lung Watch — which is dedicated to helping individuals at risk for lung cancer detect the disease early, and getting them in for treatment quickly.
“Our goal is to detect lung cancer early,” said Cathy D’Amico, lung nurse navigator at the Phoebe Cancer Center. “Statistics show (early detection) reduces mortality by 20 percent.
“If we find it early, we can remove and treat it and (let the patient) have a higher quality of life. If found late, the life span is one year, but if is found early, it is more like 10 years.”
Lung Watch is free of charge and offers a continuum of care officials say is unlike any other program available in the area. As part of the program, participants referred by their primary care physician will be screened by a low-dose spiral CT that will allow health care professionals to determine what, if any, follow-up care is needed.
From there, Phoebe will offer the treatment process from start to finish.
“The primary care physician can have the confidence the patient will be taken care of,” said Linda Van der Merwe, vice president of oncology services at Phoebe. “We are doing the whole continuum. We don’t just do the test; we do the whole care.
“We will be monitoring the patient with the primary care physician being kept in the loop.”
In order to be eligible, the participant must be 55-74 years old and a current smoker or one who has quit within the past 15 years with at least a 30 pack-year history of smoking, or be 50-74 years old and have at least a 20 pack-year history of smoking and also have at least one additional lung cancer risk factor — not including second hand smoke exposure — such as a personal cancer history of lung, lymphoma and smoking-related cancers; family history of lung cancer in a first degree relative; chronic lung disease; emphysema/pulmonary fibrosis; and carcinogen exposure to substances such as arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, chromium, diesel fumes, nickel, radon and silica.
If an individual fits into either of those groups, their primary care physician can refer them to the screening program. If a nodule is found, the participant will be referred to D’Amico, and the case will be presented to the lung tumor conference — where a comprehensive team of medical professionals will determine the best care plan for each patient.
To start off with, there will be 200 free CT scans and 200 free readings ordered by the participants’ primary care physicians. For now, Van der Merwe said, the focus will be on Dougherty, Lee, Terrell, Worth and Mitchell counties with the program being carried out on Phoebe’s main campus in Albany — with the plan being to eventually expand into other counties and to also offer it at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus and Phoebe Worth Medical Center in Sylvester.
In the meantime, there will potentially be another navigator added to the program, Van der Merwe said.
Among those who have come onboard to help launch the Lung Watch program include representatives from the American Cancer Society, the Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Massachusetts and the Albany primary care community.
“It requires teamwork for certain … working together as a team for a standardized approach to patient care,” said Dr. Andrea McKee, chair of radiation oncology at Lahey.
While the program is just now getting started in Albany, it was instituted in Massachusetts two years ago with good results.
“It was a challenge when we first started, but it is one of the strongest programs primary care physicians respond to,” McKee said. “It has taken on a life of its own.”
Dr. James Hotz, an internist with Albany Area Primary Health Care, said this new program has come about — in part — as a result of the screening guidelines that have just come out.
“For the first time, we have a screening program we can bend the curve on,” he said. “… We want to make sure the public understands (the importance of early detection).
“… We are the first state to have lung cancer screening as a highlight … We want doctors to tell them (patients) to stay away from cigarettes and get screened.”
Support groups and social workers will also be available to insure the patient does not have to walk through the program alone, officials at Phoebe said.
Lung Watch was initially funded by donations to the Phoebe Foundation, the Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center and the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia.