OK, here’s the scenario. Walk into a room of people. Not sure why you would bring it up, but ask the folks in that room if they are aware women over the age of 40 should have annual mammograms to check for breast cancer. You can bet a high percentage of those present will answer “yes,” especially if there are any women within earshot.
The attention given breast cancer — “Think Pink” and all that — is all well and good, says Wendi Waugh, administrative director of cancer services/community health and wellness for Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth. But she and SOMC thoracic and cardiac surgeon Jeremiah Martin are on a bit of a mission to inform the public there is now available another painless, 10-minute test that screens for lung cancer, which just happens to be the No. 1 type of cancer killer locally. One in three local cancer deaths involve the lungs.
Designated in 1933, National Doctors Day is today. Asked if there was anything going on in the local medical community that might be worth noting in honor of the day, Scioto County Health Commissioner Michael Martin pointed to the other Martin (no relation), who, as already noted, is, along with SOMC, on a bit of a crusade.
You may have seen or heard radio or TV ads promoting a new type of CT scan available now at SOMC which can be used to detect incidence of lung cancer far earlier than traditional methods, such as x-rays. According to Martin, if the cancer is caught in its first stage, it is curable and survivable approximately 80 percent of the time. Survival rates drop dramatically the longer the disease goes untreated.
To illustrate, if the cancer is caught early enough, five years later, 90 percent of patients are still alive and kicking. If the cancer is caught in later stages, only 15 percent of patients will have survived five years later. Those figures are the reasons Martin and Waugh say they are such promoters of early lung cancer screening. Many persons, Martin continues, can have early-stage lung cancer and not realize it.
“It’s a very aggressive disease,” he says. “Often by the time you realize you have a problem, it’s a big problem.”
Lung cancer testing is formally known as low dose computed tomography, in other words, a low dose CT scan, meaning patients are exposed to 75 percent less radiation than during a normal CT scan. According to the SOMC website, persons who should be checked for lung cancer are anyone, male or female, 55 years of age or older, who is a current smoker or who quit in the past 15 years. Persons defined as “heavy smokers,” those who smoked a pack a day or more for 30 years or more, are especially encouraged to be tested. And although testing is urged – stating they hope to relieve anxiety — the site’s authors note about 76 percent of those tested will have negative results.
For that 24 percent who might not be so lucky, in addition to promoting early testing, Martin also talks about how much improvement there has been in the surgery that is often the first course of treatment for lung cancer. Not all that long ago, to remove tumors, surgeons were forced to cut patients open from “stem to stern,” Martin says. With a still new technique dubbed video assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), incisions have become far, far smaller. Traditional surgery can keep patients in the hospital for a week or more and require three to four months recovery time. Using VATS techniques, patients can leave the hospital in a few days and return to full, normal activity in a matter of weeks.
Martin admits not all patients are candidates for even less invasive surgery, for example persons suffering from heart problems. In those cases, radiation treatments might be the way to go. But there is good news there as well.
Martin talks about what he calls stereo tactic radiation treatment. Such treatments direct multiple beams of radiation from multiple directions tightly focused onto the offending tumor. Traditional radiation treatments might be stretched over a month or more. Newer treatments require only five or six visits to the doctor. “That’s a really big improvement,” Martin says.
Martin goes on to say the new type of radiation treatment is still in its early stages of development, implying improvements are likely even over the newer treatments.
Touching on one more front, Martin mentions what he calls personalized chemotherapy treatments. Basically, such treatments make use of unique cell markers found only on the cancer cells of any individual patient. “Chemotherapy is toxic,” Martin says. But with personalized therapy, only cancer cells are targeted. The result is a marked reduction in what Martin calls the “horrible” side effects of traditional chemo. Martin quips that with all the treatment and prevention improvements, as a surgeon, he may be out of a job in the next 10 years or so.
“That’s perhaps the dream,” he says.
For her part, Waugh praises Martin for his dedication. “His passion is just crazy,” she says.
Waugh also can’t help but talk about a new $3 million treatment option that will soon be available to local cancer patients. Drivers-by may have noticed some construction at SOMC’s Kinney Lane facility. The construction was needed to make room for a new high-tech gizmo with the somewhat fancy name of Versa Elekta Linear Accelerator. Waugh calls the room housing the new machine a $1.5 million “vault.” In what are presumably very simplified terms, the accelerator allows for extremely precise targeting and destruction of tumors. Waugh describes it as a vastly upgraded radiation therapy machine. The accelerator can cut radiation treatment times of 20 to 30 minutes down to about seven minutes. Depending on the patient, it could also cut down on the number of treatments needed.
In the end, Waugh emphasizes SOMC’s push to promote early lung cancer screening. For various technical reasons related to statistics and other factors, she disagrees with the recent report released in connection with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showing smoking in Scioto County is on the decline. When talking about the causes of preventable deaths touched on in the Johnson report, Michael Martin states smoking “ranks first, second and third.”
For those interested in the lung LDCT scan, call SOMC at 740-356-5864.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931