Bill McWhite was vacationing along the Texas Gulf Coast — normally, a time to relax — when his body refused to let him unwind. Instead, the 69-year-old Hayward, Wisconsin, man experienced a flare up of his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, and found himself in the local hospital.
“I had congestion in my chest and was having problems breathing,” Bill says. “They gave me a couple medications, and, within two hours, everything was fine.”
That incident was motivation for Bill — a pack-a-day smoker for 55 years — to quit smoking and to seek care with a lung specialist back home. The decision would ultimately lead his doctors to find that he had lung cancer, through a new screening program that identified the cancer at an early, treatable stage.
After his Texas trip, Bill followed up with Adel Zurob, M.D., a pulmonologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, who suggested that he undergo a new lung cancer screening program the health system had begun offering.
The Mayo Clinic Lung Screening Program begins with a consult with a nurse practitioner to discuss risk factors and review the patient’s smoking history to determine whether he or she meets program criteria. If the patient and nurse practitioner opt to proceed, a low-dose CT scan is scheduled to check for early signs of cancer. The idea is to detect cancer early, before symptoms present and when the disease is most curable.
“The whole idea of screening is to catch things early — similar to what we do with mammograms,” says Dr. Zurob.
Depending on what the results show, patients may be advised to follow up in a year or to meet with a pulmonologist to discuss treatment options. Bill's exam revealed a small cancerous lesion in an isolated area on his right lung. He had a positron emission tomography, or PET, scan that showed no spread of cancer outside the lung, so his doctors advised surgery, which Bill underwent in June 2015.
Thomas Carmody, M.D., a cardiac surgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, performed the surgery. In addition to removing the cancerous area, Dr. Carmody checked for signs of cancer in chest lymph nodes, which came back clean.
Dr. Carmody, who often works with Dr. Zurob when the screenings identify potential surgical candidates, says Bill's surgery went well, and he expects “a very high likelihood of cure.”
“It hadn’t metastasized to other areas, which is real good news,” recounts Bill. “They pretty much got it all. I got the best outcome you could ask for.”
Lung screenings are for patients 55 to 80 years of age who have smoked a pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years. Patients also must be current smokers or had quit within the last 15 years.
The Mayo Clinic Lung Screening Program stems from a national lung screening trial in which 53,000 patients — all current or former heavy smokers — underwent either a low-dose CT scan or standard chest X-ray every year for three years. The findings showed that patients who received the CT scans had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer than those who received chest X-rays.
“If we were to take the recommendations that we get out of this trial and apply them nationwide to all those that meet the criteria, then we could avoid about 20,000 deaths every year,” says Dr. Zurob. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 157,000 people in the U.S. die from lung cancer each year. This is more than any other type of cancer.
“The real key to decreasing deaths from lung cancer is to never start smoking and quit as early as possible if you are a smoker," Dr. Zurob is quick to emphasize. "Screening alone is not the answer.”
About 150 patients have completed the lung screening in Eau Claire since the program began last year, with five of the scans identifying lung cancer. “Out of those five, Mr. McWhite is exactly the person we’re trying to identify — somebody who had a very early stage lung cancer with potential to cure with surgery," Dr. Zurob says. "That’s really what we’re after.”
Bill is grateful to his medical team for so swiftly identifying and addressing his cancer.
“It was a nervous situation for myself and my family,” he says. “The outcome was excellent, and that’s the whole idea of this early detection, so I’m extremely happy. That early testing probably saved my life.”