Patient Thankful for BayCare Annual Lung Cancer Screening
When Karen Ray turned 65, she thought she wouldn’t have to worry about lung cancer. She had smoked about a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes a day for more than 35 years.
Since her father passed away from lung cancer at age 64, Ray had jokingly convinced herself that once she reached that age, she would be fine – or she would be dead. “I was devastated to lose him but kept smoking, thinking I would most likely die by 65,” she said.
Ray, a New Port Richey resident, had what she described as a bad and nagging cough but never had any problems with her lungs. She added that her throat hurt after smoking.
Fast forward a few years to her 70th birthday when her primary care physician, BayCare Medical Group’s Dr. Sheallah Palmer, recommended that she start annual lung cancer screenings. After all she fit the criteria: she was a heavy smoker for 20 years or more and was over age 50 with no signs of lung cancer.
Ray’s screening was scheduled at BayCare’s Outpatient Imaging Center in Trinity. It was a low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan that takes detailed images of the lungs. The screening is noninvasive, painless and quick (less than a minute), and is used to find disease when there are no significant symptoms.
“I was able to get the screening for my lungs to determine if I had any problems,” Ray said. “The first screening, they said there was nothing to be concerned about.”
The next screening was different.
Ray was scheduled for her second annual screening at the same Trinity imaging center in May of 2022. As with all LDCTs performed at BayCare imaging centers, the scan is reviewed by a specialist at a BayCare lung clinic. If any abnormalities (known as nodules) are found, the specialist confers with the patient’s physician, in Ray’s case her primary care physician Dr. Palmer, and the patient is offered to be seen at a BayCare lung clinic for further testing.
“A spot was found on my lung,” Ray said. “I am just so happy that I did the screening.”
Fast Action at the Lung Nodule Clinic
Once a patient says yes to being seen in the clinic, everything is set in motion, said Debra Ellis, clinic coordinator at Morton Plant Hospital’s Lung Nodule Clinic where Ray was to be seen.
Ray had her first appointment at the Morton Plant clinic in Clearwater in June with pulmonologist Joseph Romero, DO, and more tests were ordered. All results were shared with a panel of physicians during a weekly lung nodule conference to determine a care plan. This panel of physicians includes specialties of pulmonology, radiology, pathology, thoracic surgery, medical oncology and radiation oncology.
“The benefit of the lung clinic to a patient is that they see a physician specialist quickly,” explained Ellis. “We work with the patient’s primary care physician and now they have the entire consortium of cancer specialists as a resource for the patient’s care plan. The conference review is routine for all our patients at the lung clinic.”
In July, Dr. Romero completed a bronchoscopy to fully evaluate Ray’s airways, pinpoint the nodule and biopsy it. At Morton Plant, the bronchoscopy is robot-assisted which allows physicians to biopsy smaller and harder to reach nodules.
Cancer was confirmed. And in Ray’s case, this early diagnosis made a significant difference.
The next month, thoracic surgeon Michael Kayatta, MD, performed surgery to remove the cancer from her right lung and a few lymph nodes of concern. Ray did not need any additional treatment although she will have follow-up appointments every three months for a while.
“It really was a whirlwind,” Ray said, “but I really do feel that it saved my life.”
And that nagging cough is completely gone. “From the diagnosis through all my appointments and the surgery, everyone was great,” Ray said. “I went from being a lung cancer patient to being cancer free in a matter of weeks. They all were professional and so wonderful.”
Now at the age of 72, Ray says she is thankful that the cancer was caught early. She continues to work from home for a New York medical organization and participates in a water exercise class at her condominium twice a week.
She also was happy to meet her new great-grandchild, Diana Rose, who was set to arrive in December but made her appearance a couple of weeks early. Ray traveled with her family during the Thanksgiving holiday to see the new baby.
“I am so grateful that I am here to see this little person come in the world! Being a great grandmother is only possible because the CT scan was available to me, and my PCP referred me to the great people at the Lung Clinic,” Ray said. “It was amazing how fast the tests were done, and the surgery was scheduled. I can travel to be with them and for that I cannot be more grateful.”
Low-Dose CT Scans a Part of Annual Exams
The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends yearly lung cancer screenings with LDCT for anyone that has a 20 pack-year or more smoking history, smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years and is over the age of 50.
“If you meet the criteria,” Ellis adds, “the key is to complete a screening every year. Just like a mammogram or colonoscopy, it is important to have comparisons for the physicians to evaluate.” Ellis is also Morton Plant’s Oncology Nurse Navigator that helps guides patients through every step of a cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Lung cancer screenings are prescribed by a primary care physician and are available at all BayCare Imaging locations. Lung cancer programs with the multidisciplinary approach are currently at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg is soon to have a lung nodule clinic. Robotic technology to assist in the early detection of lung cancer is also offered at all three of those hospitals. Learn more about BayCare services to fight lung cancer.