Screening helps retiree beat lung cancer

June 14, 2016 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Heroes

There are warnings on cigarette packs, scary public service TV spots, and bans on smoking in most public places. Some long-term smokers become overwhelmed by these daily alarms and avoid finding out the state of their lungs. Yet, a simple and painless lung screening for high-risk patients can identify lung cancers early — when the disease is most treatable.

Long-time smoker and Bensenville resident Frank Kowalski, 66, managed to push through his fears a few weeks after receiving a post card about a lung cancer screening at Elmhurst Hospital.

"I hesitated at first. I was worried about what I'd find out,” he recalls. “But my (primary care) doctor and my wife wanted me to have the screening, so I finally agreed."

Pulmonologist Phillip Cozzi, M.D., of Elmhurst Clinic, says Kowalski was an appropriate candidate for the screening because he met the following criteria:

  • A 30 "pack-year” history of tobacco use ("pack-years" refers to the number of years a person smoked times the number of packs smoked per day)
  • A current smoker or someone who quit within the past 15 years
  • Age between 55 and 75

Kowalski's screening in December 2014 did reveal some emphysema, though he reports he’d never had symptoms beyond an occasional cough that he blamed on changes in the weather.

Of greater concern was a small nodule seen on his left upper lobe. Kowalski was referred to Dr. Cozzi, who ordered a PET scan, a powerful imaging technique that shows cellular activity in the body. The test suggested the nodule was malignant.

Dr. Cozzi presented Kowalski's case at Elmhurst Hospital's Multi-disciplinary Thoracic Oncology Conference.

“The group includes a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and a thoracic surgeon, as well as a pulmonologist,” says Dr. Cozzi. “We reviewed Mr. Kowalski’s X-rays and discussed strategies."

Dr. Cozzi discussed a proposed treatment plan with Kowalski, and surgery was scheduled with Michael DaValle, M.D., a cardiac and thoracic surgeon with Elmhurst Hospital and Cardiac Surgery Associates. The surgery would involve taking a tissue sample to confirm whether the nodule was cancerous or benign.

Dr. DaValle removed part of the upper lobe of Kowalski's left lung in March 2015. The diagnosis was confirmed as Stage 1A squamous cell carcinoma, which is a type of lung cancer also known as non-small cell carcinoma.

"Lung cancer is frequently fatal,” says Dr. Cozzi. “But low-dose CT screening has been a major advance in early detection of lung cancer, as chances of cure are better with screening. Mr. Kowalski's nodule was discovered when it was very small and the cancer was at an early stage. One year after the resection (surgery), there is no evidence of recurring cancer. His prognosis is excellent.”

Now a non-smoker, Kowalski has gradually built up his stamina since his surgery, thanks in part to 36 weeks in pulmonary rehabilitation. While the emphysema keeps him from racing up stairs or carrying extra heavy loads, he has worked up to walking about five miles a day.

He has this advice for others in the high-risk group: "Go for a screening early when they can still take care of it. Wouldn't you like to be around longer?"

Learn more about Edward-Elmhurst Health’s low-dose CT lung screening for at-risk patients.

To find out if you’re at risk for lung disease, take a free, five-minute LungAware assessment.

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