Maria Strmsek was not coy about sharing the experience of being screened for lung cancer – inviting The Signal to see the process all the way from when she checked in to when she walked out. Strmsek was also transparent about why she was there.
“First of all, I’m an ex-smoker,” said Strmsek. “Although I don’t fit into the criteria, in the sense of Medicare paying for it because it was more than 15 years that I stopped smoking… Somebody spotted a little thing on my lungs and I was kind of worried. They said, ‘No, it doesn’t look like anything,’ [but] I just want them to check back in that area to see if there’s anything there, because it worries me.”
Stmsek was taking advantage of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital’s Lung Cancer Screening Day, held at Tower Imaging Valencia’s facility on Saturday, which offered some expanded eligibility for lung cancer CT scans.
The whole process was quite quick, no more than 15 minutes – with the actual screening only lasting about two minutes. Dr. Richard Goldman, director of radiology, said going through this quick and easy process is crucial to catching lung cancer early.
“If somebody comes in and they’re a smoker and we find a little lung nodules and it’s a certain size, it can be biopsied [and] be evaluated in more detail before it grows to a size where it’s beyond treatment, or treatment would be very difficult,” said Goldman. “Just like any other cancer, the sooner you’ll find that – the sooner you can treat it, the longer and better the prognosis will be for the patient.”
Goldman said the scanners use high-resolution images on very thin sections of the lungs, as small as 2 millimeters, to look for these little nodules or “dark spots” that can be easily removed – which is necessary before they balloon and risk of severe illness or death increases.
While there are many awareness programs for other types of cancer – such as breast and colon cancer – lung cancer awareness is often overlooked, according to Melissa Heredia, marketing coordinator for Tower Imaging.
“The lung cancer program kind of gets hidden under the radar just because we’ve usually spent a little bit more time on breast cancer awareness or colorectal awareness. I think right now it’s a really great time to come in and push the lung cancer screening program,” said Heredia. “We have 80% of people that go and get scanned for breast cancer, you know, do their mammogram screenings and their colorectal screenings, but lung cancer is like 10%. So a lot of people don’t even realize that [insurance companies] have changed their criteria, and they’re allowing more people to qualify.”
According to Henry Mayo, nine out of 10 lung cancers can be detected by screening before symptoms appear and 85% of lung cancers are caused by smoking. While qualifications to get scanned are starting to loosen, you still have to fit criteria to qualify – one of which is that you had to have been a smoker for at least 20 pack years (which is the number of packs daily times the number of years smoked) and be between the ages of 50 and 70.
“It’s a very aggressive form of cancer and I just think people, especially smokers that are currently smoking, really need to have themselves looked at because it’s a very addictive habit,” said Strmsek. “I just think it’s important that people at least are aware of their health, in the sense of something that can save their lives. That’s why I’m doing and it was because I was the first person apparently that called for this program.”