Lung cancer survivor Tonye Gray learned the benefits of early detection
Tonye Gray said she first discovered information about lung cancer screenings two years ago at a health fair she was helping market for New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
Tonye has two doctors and an anesthesiologist in her family. Still, Tonye said, she had never heard of a lung cancer screening.
As she learned, the low-dose computed tomography (CT) screenings offered by the hospital produce detailed images of a patient’s lungs and can detect smaller tumors than a standard X-ray.
Tonye, who started smoking at 16, said the information stuck with her, and she promised herself that she would get checked. When she went in for a physical earlier this year, she asked her physician to schedule a screening.
The low-dose CT scan showed a spot, and Gray said the NHRMC medical team immediately kicked things into high gear.
Tonye had follow-up screenings and finally a biopsy that confirmed the spot was cancer.
“From that point, it was the most wonderful feeling because they were on it,” she said. “They were on it like you wouldn’t believe -- talking to each other, calling surgeons, and deciding on what the best options were for me.”
The lung cancer was caught so early, she said, it could barely be categorized as Stage I.
“I almost didn’t have time to be scared. It’s like a machine turned on,” she said.
In July, doctors removed the cancerous lobe of Tonye’s lung.
She said catching her cancer in such an early stage was a blessing.
According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year relative survival rate for people with stage I non-small cell lung cancer – the most common form of lung cancer -- is 49 percent compared to 1 percent at Stage IV.
Nearly two years ago, NHRMC launched its Lung Program at Zimmer Cancer Center -- offering comprehensive and streamlined care to those recently diagnosed with lung cancer.
The launch of the program coincided with the renovation of the Zimmer Cancer Center, an 18-month expansion that was completed in September.
Lorraine Sieminski, RN, NHRMC Lung Program Coordinator, said screenings, which are covered by Medicare and some insurers, are vital to catching cancer early. More than a dozen Stage 1 patients have been diagnosed through screening and enrolled in the Lung Program.
“That’s really remarkable because years ago that would have never been caught,” she said. “That would probably been diagnosed as a Stage 3 or Stage 4 by the time they would have gotten checked.”
A team of doctors
When cancer is found, treatment in NHRMC’s Lung Program starts immediately, Sieminski said.
A tumor board consisting of cancer doctors and other medical staff meets on Wednesday mornings to discuss patients’ scans and test results together and decide on a plan of care. Setting up appointments with each of the doctors individually might take up to 60 days, but the Lung Program brings all of the doctors together at once.
“It’s specialized care, all in one place,” Sieminski said. “They have access to a pulmonologist, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and a thoracic surgeon.”
A nurse coordinator then helps patients schedule all appointments, find transportation if necessary and locate community resources and support groups.
From the moment her “spot” was found, Gray said both she and her family were blown away by how professionally and quickly her treatment was handled.
She said she is doing well in her recovery, although walking up stairs does wind her a bit. She no longer smokes cigarettes.
“Cancer is never a good diagnosis,” she said. “It’s scary and you never know when it’s going to come back. I’ll live with those questions forever, but everyone in the Lung Program was phenomenal.”
Who should be screened?
Consider a lung screen if you:
- Are between the ages of 55 and 77
- Are a current smoker or have quit in the last 15 years
- Have smoked at least 30 pack-years (For example, 1 pack per day for 30 years or 2 packs per day for 15 years)
Click here to choose a location for your lung cancer screening.