A simple screening saved my life

A simple screening saved my life

“I started smoking when I was 16,” says Mary Debrick-Johnson, a stay-at-home mom from Elmwood Park, Ill. “It was a cool thing to do back then. My boyfriends smoked. My father smoked. I smoked a pack a day for almost 50 years.”

At the age of 65, Mary decided to get a lung screening, because she wanted to please her primary care doctor, who mentioned she should. The low-dose, non-invasive, painless CT scan can help identify lung cancer early in people who have a history of smoking a pack a day for 30 or more years.

“When the results came in, we could see a small, one centimeter tumor at the center of her lung,” says Dr. Michael Vercillo, a thoracic surgeon at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “It was concerning enough to get an additional imaging test and a biopsy.”

The additional testing confirmed Mary had stage I lung cancer. “Oh, boy, that’s it,” Mary recalls thinking at the time. With the tremendous support from her 25-year-old daughter, Mary remained positive and ready to climb any hill in front of her, no matter how big it was.

“Luckily, Mrs. Derbick-Johnson’s tumor was very small. We would have never known it was there had we not looked,” explains Dr. Vercillo. “The lung screening might have saved her life. If she didn’t have the screening, the cancer would grow and eventually spread locally to the surrounding tissues and organs or to distant sites such as liver, brain, or bones.”

After five treatments of Cyberknife radiation, there were no signs of cancer any more. “Everything worked out fine. I’m so grateful we caught the cancer early. Who knows what would have happened, had I not had the scan.”

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States and worldwide. The difficulty with lung cancer is it typically does not cause symptoms until it is advanced, and thus, is much harder to treat and cure. “I wasn’t coughing. I wasn’t congested. I had no symptoms at all,” says Mary.

There has been a very strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer – mostly caused by multiple carcinogens in tobacco smoke, as well as the chronic inflammation from frequent smoking.

“Smoking can harm the patient’s lung tissue over time,” says Dr. Vercillo. “The carcinogens in the smoke can lead to change of the cells within the lung tissue that can lead to cancer. It can destroy the tiny hairs that line the airways of the lung and help clean the lung of debris leading to the typical smoker’s cough. It also can destroy the elastic tissue of the lung, which leads to emphysema.”

So who should consider the lung screening? You are eligible if you are:

  • 55-77 years old and have Medicare or 55-80 years old and have private insurance
  • Currently a smoker or have quit smoking within the last 15 years
  • Have a history of smoking a pack a day for 30 or more years

Mary offers these words of advice to everyone who has been a long-time smoker: “Go get the scan. Don’t put it off. It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you have a big hill to climb, it’s better to start early. The scan may save your life.”

For more information on the lung screening, go to: http://www.advocatehealth.com/luth-lung-cancer-screening

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About the Author

Sonja Vojcic
Sonja Vojcic

Sonja Vojcic, health enews contributor, is a marketing manager at Advocate Health Care in Downers Grove, Ill. She has several years of international public relations and marketing experience with a Master’s degree in Communications from DePaul University. In her free time, Sonja enjoys spending time with her family, travelling, and keeping up with the latest health news and fashion trends.