From Cough to Cancer: How an X-ray May Have Saved One Woman’s Life

June 23, 2016

When Marvena Tucker went to see a doctor last November to treat what she thought was bronchitis, the 43-year-old was surprised by the two spots doctors found on her right lung using an X-ray.

Tucker only had a cough for about a week and thought her ailment was related to either her son’s recent bout with strep throat or her husband’s bronchitis. A CT scan with contrast and a biopsy performed at Mercy Hospital Ardmore later confirmed that she had stage 4 lung cancer. Doctors also found cancer in her lymph nodes in the center of her chest, but results from other imaging tests revealed no other cancer in her body.

“For mine to pop up on an X-ray was a shock and a miracle itself because that’s what saved my life,” said Tucker, of Lone Grove, Oklahoma.

Dr. Derek Howard, a radiologist and medical director of imaging services at Mercy Hospital Ardmore, said imaging tests, like a CT scan, can detect even smaller tumors at earlier stages than what Tucker’s X-ray found. Early detection of cancer can save lives.

Tucker began chemotherapy treatments in December and has seen significant results so far. In fact, a CT scan at the end of April showed her tumor had decreased in size by 75 percent. She will continue chemotherapy and have another CT scan in the coming months.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Medical imaging uses radiation to reveal abnormalities that are hidden by bone, muscle or tissue. Different imaging tests can be used to reveal more routine illnesses and injuries, such as broken bones or kidney stones, or can reveal cancer and other complex conditions, like in Tucker’s case.

In May, Mercy Hospital Ardmore’s imaging services department began offering lung cancer screening exams for qualifying patients ages 55 to 77 who have smoked 30 pack years, which is about one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or two packs of cigarettes a day for 15 years. A physician’s order is required and the screening is only available to patients who have no signs or symptoms of lung cancer.

The CT scan for the screening uses a lower dose of radiation than a typical CT scan to get a clear picture of a patient’s lungs. The exam is fairly new across the country and requires the use of a 16-slice CT scanner, which is not available in all hospitals, especially in rural areas.

“In lung cancer, you don’t usually have symptoms or they are mild until it has progressed,” said Heather Chatham, director of imaging services at Mercy Hospital Ardmore. “Doing this kind of scan for a high-risk population is really important and can save lives through the early detection of cancer.”

For more than 10 years, Mercy’s imaging services department has also offered a cardiac screening exam using a CT scanner to determine the amount of calcium build-up in the vessels that pump blood to the heart. If those vessels get blocked, the patient may suffer a heart attack. 

These screening exams do not require a physician’s order and are open to anyone over age 30 without a history of cardiac problems. If the screening finds high levels of calcium build-up in the vessels, patients will be referred to a cardiologist for follow-up care.

In the past, Chatham said some patients with significant calcium build-up in the blood vessels have even seen a cardiologist and had open-heart surgery on the same day as the screening.

Convenient Services Close to Home

Mercy Hospital Ardmore has three full-time radiologists on staff in the imaging services department to read studies, speak with physicians and patients, and perform special procedures, like barium studies or image-guided biopsies. Two of these radiologists — Dr. Chance Cruson and Dr. Michael Harding — recently joined Mercy Hospital Ardmore. Howard has been a radiologist at Mercy since 2001.

In addition to the image-guided biopsies and lung cancer and cardiac screening exams, the imaging services team at Mercy Hospital Ardmore offers a comprehensive menu of imaging services, including:

  • X-ray
  • CT scans
  • PET CT scans
  • MRI
  • Nuclear medicine
  • Ultrasound
  • Mammography
  • Fluoroscopy

Bone densitometry, which measures the density of a patient’s bones, is also offered at Mercy’s primary care clinic on 14th Avenue in Ardmore. In partnership with the Oklahoma Heart Hospital, Mercy also offers tests to detect cardiac problems, including echocardiograms and vascular imaging.

The decision of which scan is used depends on where the tumor, injury or disease is located; whether the physician is examining bone or soft tissue; and how well the patient can tolerate radiation from the scan. 

Tucker receives all of her cancer treatments and imaging tests at Mercy Hospital Ardmore and is grateful for the friendly staff that calms her fears.

She is also thankful that the services are available near her home. Traveling outside of the Ardmore area for health care services is not an option for Tucker since she is the primary caregiver to her 23-year-old son who is in a wheelchair.

“It’s real convenient and they have good doctors,” she said. “The whole entire place down there is a blessing.”

Tucker is optimistic about her health and committed to fighting her cancer with a positive attitude.

“I wasn’t expecting this to happen to me, especially at age 43, but it happened and you have to take it in stride, think positive and know that you can beat it,” she said.

For more information about the imaging services available at Mercy Hospital Ardmore, call 580-220-6162. To learn about the Mercy Cancer Center, call 580-223-7091.