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Published on March 17, 2020

Pat Powell

How a Lung Cancer Screening Led to an Early Diagnosis

The decision for Pat Powell to get a lung cancer screening about five years ago changed the course of her life.

It’s what helped detect concerning growths in the lower right lung. That one screening led to closer monitoring over the next few years with periodic scans. Eventually cancer developed and was caught early enough that it could be surgically removed. During surgery additional lesions were found that weren’t seen on the scan and were also removed.

“I think that’s what saved my life,” Powell said of the procedure and the screening. “I’m a firm believer in screenings. I’ve been checked head to toe at this point.”

Because multiple cancerous lesions were found, Pat was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and had four sessions of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy helps decrease the risk of recurrence by killing any cancer that may have been left behind, said Heidi McKean, MD, a medical oncologist with Avera Medical Group.

“It’s a good news day in our clinic when you meet someone like Pat and tell them the cancer was found early enough for us to get a surgeon involved,” McKean said. “I spend a lot of my days talking with patients who have stage 4 cancer and it’s not curable.”

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women, according the American Cancer Society. More people die of lung cancer each year than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

That’s largely because cancers like Powell’s don’t cause symptoms, such as trouble breathing, until it’s much further along, McKean said. That’s why a low-dose CT lung cancer screening can be so important.

Powell, 78, quit smoking about 10 years ago. Given her long history as a smoker, her primary care physician recommended the low-dose CT lung cancer screening. The CT scan is recommended to certain people, 55–77 years old with a history of smoking.

The initial screening found concerning white spots that needed monitoring. At that point patients have a higher dose CT scan, usually with dye. These scans can pick up growths smaller than 5 centimeters.

Powell’s growth was about 2.8 centimeters. Even with the need to remove some of her lung, Powell said she is back to normal activities, including working at Hy-Vee giving out samples. She’s happy to not be on oxygen and to have more time to spend with her husband, Lynn, and family.

She says the diagnosis changed her perspective on life in a way that’s hard to put into words. It also led her and Lynn to take a trip to Alaska last July, following her chemotherapy treatment.

“Because we had a scare, we decided let’s just do it – it will probably be the last time we take a trip like that,” she said.

Powell’s story is one that McKean wants to hear more of. “She’s back living her life and she’s hopefully cured of this cancer. It’s a much different scenario than if we find the cancer at a later stage.”

If you are a current or past smoker, ask your primary care provider if a low-dose CT lung cancer screening is right for you.

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