Early detection saves lives: The power of regular screening in the fight against lung cancer
Jerry Kirwin, 71, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for more than 50 years. Dr. Jason West, D.O., has been Jerry’s family practice physician at Lutheran for 20 years. He recommended Jerry get screened for lung cancer because of Jerry’s smoking history and chronic bronchitis and respiratory symptoms negatively impacting his health and quality of life.
Jerry got a CT scan in December 2021 and a biopsy in August 2022, and learned he had lung cancer. He underwent surgery to remove a mass in the lower left lobe of his chest, and they found cancer in a lymph node, which moved him up to a higher staged cancer – stage 2b.
“It was really scary to find out I had cancer,” said Jerry. “My dad was also a smoker and he died of lung cancer.”
Both Jerry and his wife, Rose, are avid golfers. “We won tickets to the Masters Tournament in 2020 but it was delayed due to the pandemic,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and my doctors said it would be okay to delay my chemotherapy until we got back.”
The recommendation for stage 2 lung cancer is four rounds of chemotherapy followed by one year of immunotherapy. Jerry will be rechecked every three months for the next two years, but as of today, he is cancer free.
“We recommend yearly screening with a low-dose CT scan of the lungs for current smokers aged 55-79 with 30 pack/year smoking history and for former smokers who are within 15 years of having quit,” said. Dr. West. “Jerry's diagnosis and treatment is a testament to the importance of early detection through regular screening. Many disease states are treatable when caught early. This goes for cancer as well as disease states like hypertension or diabetes.”
“Quitting smoking was the hardest thing I ever did,” said Jerry, who smoked his last cigarette a year after his surgery. “Cigarettes shouldn’t be legal. They are extremely addictive, and everyone knows they kill people. I’m grateful I was able to quit, and that Dr. West recommended I get screened when I did since they were able to catch it early.”
Dr. West explained that the most common reason people don’t get screened is a combination of stress, fear and denial.
“It is universally known that smoking is bad for you,” he said. "The problem is tobacco is incredibly addictive and it has a comforting and stress-relieving effect. I commonly hear from smokers that they have too much stress in their lives to quit right now and that’s a very powerful coping/justification mechanism that makes quitting or even getting screening done difficult for people.”
He added, “All of us are overscheduled and busy and it is too easy to use this to justify putting off regular visits to our doctors, dentists, etc. Don't. We all need to prioritize our health and make time in our busy schedules for ourselves. This can begin with a simple visit to our doctors once a year and following the recommended screening guidelines.”