Screening Technology Helps Mercy Doctors Detect Lung Cancer Earlier

March 2, 2018

When Bonnie Brown went to Mercy Hospital Joplin to get a computerized tomography (CT) scan of her lungs last summer, she was shocked by what doctors discovered.

Brown’s physician had ordered the test after a bad cough would not resolve with different treatments. She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that blocks the airway and makes it difficult to breathe, and assumed the symptoms were related to the condition.

“I just thought I had really bad COPD and they would treat me for that,” said Brown, 75, of Joplin. “When I came back in, they told me I had stage 3 lung cancer, which scared the you-know-what out of me. I did not think it could be cancer.”

Doctors told Brown she may have had the tumor for several years and did not know about it since her only symptoms mimicked those of COPD.

Lung cancer has few early symptoms. Only after the tumor is advanced do patients experience things like recurrent pneumonia, bloody sputum (a combination of saliva and mucus that patients cough up), shortness of breath or enlarged lymph nodes.

Thanks to the low-dose CT scan she received at Mercy to screen for lung cancer, Brown discovered the cancer early enough to seek treatment and is hopeful about her prognosis.

“If I hadn’t had the scan, I probably would have died with cancer and not even known about it,” she said. “I’m just leaving it up to God now and what they are doing for me out at Mercy.”

A Closer Look

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths annually. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. But, unlike those types of cancer which have effective screening tools, reliable screening for lung cancer did not exist until recently.

Since 2015, Mercy Hospital Joplin has offered lung cancer screening through a CT scan for high-risk patients. The screening uses a lower dose of radiation than a typical CT scan to get a clear picture of a patient’s lungs and shows the shape, size and location of anything abnormal that may signal the need for follow-up. The procedure takes less than 30 seconds.

During the CT scan, patients lie very still on a table, which moves slowly through the CT scanner. The CT scanner is an X-ray machine that rotates around the patient and takes thinly sliced images in a spiral from many angles. This technology can detect lung cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages.

The screening is for patients who fit into this criteria:

  • Between the ages of 55 and 77
  • Current smokers or former smokers who have quit within the last 15 years
  • In generally good health and do not have signs, symptoms or a personal history of lung cancer
  • Have a 30 pack-year smoking history, meaning the patient smokes or smoked one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or two packs of cigarettes a day for 15 years

Not only does the screening show any possible tumors, it also serves as a baseline so doctors can detect changes over time. Depending on what the scan shows, patients will be advised to get another scan at least every year.

“Doing this kind of scan for a high-risk population is really important,” said Paul Cook, lung cancer screening coordinator and oncology nurse navigator at Mercy Hospital Joplin. “I have worked in oncology for 16 years and I am tired of seeing people die from lung cancer. If we can catch it earlier and save even one life, that’s my goal.”

One Day at a Time

In November, Brown completed the last of her 40 radiation treatments and is currently undergoing chemotherapy at Mercy Hospital Joplin. She will have another CT scan in a few months to see the impact of the radiation and chemotherapy on the tumor.  

So far, she is doing well with her treatments and met her first goal on New Year’s Day, which was to be around for the birth of her newest great-grandson. She is thankful for the people and the technology at Mercy and is staying positive about the future.

“I love everybody out there; they are so special,” said Brown. “I would never want to go anywhere else.”

In addition to spreading the message to stop smoking — or never begin the habit — she also wants to encourage others to get screened.

“There’s nothing to it,” said Brown. “You go in and lay on the table and they explain what they are doing. It’s really easy.”

A Center of Excellence

Mercy Hospital Joplin is recognized as Screening Center of Excellence by the national Lung Cancer Alliance (LCA) for its ongoing commitment to responsible lung cancer screening.

Designated Screening Centers of Excellence are committed to providing clear information based on current evidence on who is a candidate for lung cancer screening and complying with comprehensive standards. These standards are based on best practices for controlling screening quality, radiation dose and diagnostic procedures within an experienced, multi-disciplinary clinical setting. They were developed by professional bodies such as the American College of Radiology, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the International Early Lung Cancer Action Program.

If you think you are a good candidate for a lung cancer screening, speak with your physician. A physician’s referral is required and most major insurance plans cover the screening. For more information about lung cancer screenings available at Mercy Hospital Joplin, call (417) 556-2714. To learn about the Mercy Cancer Center, call (417) 782-7722.

Mercy is now an in-network provider with most Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance plans. To learn more, visit mercy.net/Included.

About Mercy Hospital Joplin

Mercy Hospital Joplin offers the latest advancements in cancer treatment. Patients have access to new drugs and therapies, clinical trials of experimental pharmaceuticals and diagnostic technology at the leading edge of medicine and with convenience and compassion for cancer care patients and their families. The comfortable and convenient center is at the new Mercy Joplin campus, with parking right outside the door, easy access to pharmacy, laboratory and radiology services and a healing garden where patients and their families can relax. www.mercy.net/practice/mercy-cancer-center-joplin

About Lung Cancer Alliance

LCA is leading non-profit organization dedicated to saving lives and advancing research by empowering people living with or at risk for lung cancer. LCA launched the National Framework for Excellence in Lung Cancer Screening and Continuum of Care in 2012 and has more than 400 sites committed to the guidelines. www.lungcanceralliance.org

Paul Cook, RN at Mercy Cancer Center in Joplin, and Bonnie Brown share encouraging words and a laugh before an appointment. Paul Cook, RN at Mercy Cancer Center in Joplin, and Bonnie Brown share encouraging words and a laugh before an appointment.