November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and the medical community hopes to continue to improve early detection, treatments and survival rates.
Thomas O’Connell is 65, a former smoker who quit 15 years ago. Even though he hadn’t smoked in a long time, his family doctor suggested a scan for possible lung cancer early in 2016. "Within two hours after I'm home," he recalls, "they called and said 'we found a spot.' They said it was about the size of a dime, and I thought 'I feel great! I might not even have anything done.' My family doctor said 'have it done; you might not feel too bad now, but in two years, that thing is going to quadruple'."
“It” was the surgical removal of about a third of one of his lungs. Luckily, O’Connell never needed chemotherapy or radiation treatments. The surgery was successful.
Dr. Gordan Srkalovic works at Sparrow Hospital’s new Herbert-Herman Cancer Center in Lansing. He says when his career began, the leading lung cancer treatment was classical cytotoxic chemotherapy. "At that time, we didn't know any molecular or genetic markers that we can use to treat patients," he explains. "Now, we know much more about genetic malformations or genetic mutations that actually drive those cancers."
Now, in about 60% of lung cancers, medications can block that growth. Other drugs, Dr. Srkalovic says, are in the pipeline.
Side effects have changed significantly as a result. There’s no loss of hair, no drop in blood counts, no high risk of infection. The worst seems to be some skin changes or stomach upsets.
According to Dr. Srkalovic, there isn’t much of a change in when surgery is called for, but surgery has become less invasive. For example, Thomas O’Connell’s lung surgery was through a relatively small incision in his side.
Dr. Srkalovic reports that with these advances in lung cancer science, survival rates are getting better. "Unfortunately, the number of patients who come with the lung cancer is increasing every year, and that's the biggest issue," he says, "but survival from lung cancer is definitely improving."
Thomas O’Connell says that he’s glad to be back at his seasonal retirement job with Michigan State University landscape services, mowing, planting and pruning on the north side of campus. It's work he loves doing. "I feel great," he concludes. "I was a little worried about being winded or not being able to breathe right, but I feel like I never really even had it. My wife reminds me every day, 'you got a second chance; just be grateful,' which I am."
To kick off Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Sparrow Hospital is holding an event called “Let’s Clear the Air” Wednesday at their new cancer center on Michigan Avenue in Lansing. It will include a large lung model showing the effects of disease and trauma to the lungs. That’s from 5 to 7 p.m.