The Turning Point

November 23, 2018

A fateful drive led one woman to a clinical trial where lung cancer was discovered.

KATHY LEISER NEVER IMAGINED that a public service announcement would change her life. In 2011 she was driving when she heard a voice on the radio talking about a lung cancer screening clinical trial, and researchers were looking for people to join.

Leiser, who had smoked on and off most of her life, called to learn more. “I thought OK, this is a great thing, because if anything comes up in the future, I have someone watching,” she says.

The Nashville resident was a candidate and began going through a series of testing. Three days later she received a call. At the researcher’s office, Leiser, then 61, was told that a spot was discovered on her lungs and it might be cancerous. A PET scan confirmed the suspicions. “Get that thing out of there,” Leiser thought.

The 2.8-centimeter mass hadn’t spread, so a surgeon was able to remove it and no chemotherapy was necessary. Leiser maintains that she never had any symptoms of lung cancer. A year prior, she had gone for a chest X-ray, but nothing showed up. Now, she sees a pulmonologist and goes for a CT scan every year.

She feels fortunate that her disease was found early. “Lung cancer is silent until it’s so far gone that there really isn’t anything that can be done,” Leiser says.

Leiser’s story and countless others are part of the driving force behind the Saved By the Scan campaign started by the American Lung Association’s Lung Force initiative. A person must first take an eligibility quiz and will undergo a low-dose CT scan if they qualify.

The results can be positive, negative or intermediate. A positive result means that something abnormal was spotted, and additional testing is likely required. Intermediate means a person will be watched and follow-up is recommended. “This is the method by which we are now going to save tens of thousands of lives each year,” says Andrea McKee, M.D., chair of the division of radiation oncology at the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center Sophia Gordon Cancer Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “It’s really a game changer when it comes to lung cancer.”

The numbers speak for themselves.

With no screening, 70 percent of patients present with stage 3 or 4 disease, which is often incurable, according to McKee, but when screened, 70 to 80 percent are diagnosed with stage 1 or 2 lung cancer. “Early stage screen-detected lung cancer is highly curable,” says McKee, who is also an American Lung Association volunteer spokesperson.

Recent findings from the second largest screening trial in the world show the effectiveness of CT screening over 10 years of follow-up. Researchers determined that screening in asymptomatic men at high risk for lung cancer reduced death from the disease by 26 percent. In women the rate-ratio of dying from lung cancer was between 0.39 and 0.61. “This is an incredibly powerful study and ends, kind of, the conversation about the benefits of screening,” she says.

To date more than 134,000 Americans have taken the Saved By the Scan screening eligibility quiz, and over 48,000 met the criteria and were encouraged to speak to their doctor, according to Lung Force.

Leiser, a seven-year survivor, is thankful that she still gets to spend time with her children and grandchildren. “Don’t be afraid to get the CT scan,” she says, “because even if what you find out is not good, it’s better to find out now. I am living proof of that.”


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