It is not unheard of for a lung cancer diagnosis to be determined in a roundabout way. And, while these diagnoses are often shocking and bemusing, they, more often than not, prolong and save lives. Accidentally finding lung cancer thankfully leads to an early diagnosis which plays a major role in survivorship.
Six months prior to her diagnosis, Laura, who is a runner and avid exerciser, sought medical attention for female issues. When she went to the doctor to determine the cause of these issues, imaging tests were ordered. Laura did not have any of the symptoms that could be associated with lung cancer. If not for imaging to determine what was causing her issues,it is highly unlikely she’d have been diagnosed when she was.
This initial round of scans showed nothing of any concern. A month later, Laura found herself in the emergency room with a high fever. She was given another scan, this one of her abdomen and pelvis. The scan was inconclusive regarding her fever related to her ongoing female issues. But, the radiologist noted an incidental 10 mm nodule toward the bottom of her right lung’s lower lobe. At the time, alarm bells did not ring, the attending ER doctor told Laura to follow up with a pulmonologist.
A few months later, Laura met with the pulmonologist. The doctor noted that the nodule was on the low end of concern due to its size. Fortunately, he opted to explore further and had Laura undergo a PET scan.
Accidentally Finding Lung Cancer Early Has Benefits
For more than 30 years, Laura has worked in interventional cardiology supporting physicians in hospitals in the United States and abroad. She currently is a senior clinical strategic advisor, helping to mentor and guide start-ups that design novel, investigational medical devices. These professional experiences provided Laura with a deeper understanding of imaging and terminology associated with her diagnosis. So, when she met with her doctor for the scan results, she knew something was wrong.
Soon following the scan, Laura underwent a CT-guided lung biopsy. Her diagnosis: adenocarcinoma, stage 1. As a result of robotic surgery performed to remove the affected part of her lung, a sample was sent out for both biopsy and biomarker testing. The results: 15 lymph nodes surrounding the tumor were removed. One of those lymph nodes was cancerous, therefore chemotherapy was the next step on Laura’s lung cancer journey. With biomarker testing, Laura’s tumor was determined to be ALK+, and her staging was elevated to 2B.
Immediately following these results, Laura began a regimen of four rounds of chemotherapy treatment. With a positive outlook, she opted against having a port implanted (by which chemotherapy is readily infused), noting that she felt that she was going to beat this diagnosis. Her final infusion was on September 17, 2022. She has since had two more rounds of scans, one as recently as January 2023. Laura is currently NED (no evidence of disease).
What if Lung Cancer is Caught Early?
Prior to her lung cancer diagnosis, Laura, who is in her mid-60s, had never had surgery or been inpatient at the hospital. Since her lung cancer journey began, she never stopped running, working, or being active. She feels great and counts herself incredibly fortunate to have been diagnosed when she was.
“Here’s my takeaway: why can’t we do something more in terms of screening? My story is so ridiculously random. If not for a totally unrelated medical issue, an emergency room physician opting to order a CT scan, I never would have been diagnosed until it was too late. My story feels small compared to what other people have had to endure. It is so important to me that we take experiences like mine and learn from them. I am so blessed to have been diagnosed so early and want to hear more stories like mine.”
The Odds of an Unexpected Lung Cancer Diagnoses
Fewer than 1 in 7 lung cancer patients will be diagnosed in the earliest stage, when the disease is most treatable. Many lung cancer patients arrive at their diagnosis as a result of symptoms. It is not unusual for a patient to seek medical attention as a result of suffering with a persistent cough, back pain, wheezing, shortness of breath, a history or smoking, or unexplained weight loss. Those are the cases that one tends to hear about. It is cases likes Laura’s which are somehow even more frightening. The instances of lung cancer diagnoses in asymptomatic patients as well as random incidental findings are not nearly as unusual as one might think.
Several patients who we have highlighted on these pages came to be diagnosed purely by happenstance. Early-stage lung cancer symptoms are often vague or mimic those of other illnesses. As Laura is so acutely aware, she was incredibly fortunate to get diagnosed early when lung cancer is more treatable. LCFA works tirelessly to raise awareness and funds for lung cancer research. We want more stories like Laura’s where early detection and biomarker-driven treatment changed the outcome of her lung cancer diagnosis.
Early Detection of Lung Cancer
Accidentally finding lung cancer early has been key to Laura’s successful treatment and current NED status. The fact is that people who receive a lung cancer diagnosis while it is in an early stage have a far better chance of long-term survival. It is the ultimate goal to make early lung cancer screening a rule rather than an exception.
For screening to be most effective, more of the susceptible population should be screened annually—currently screening rates remain low among those exposed to any of the numerous risk factors for lung cancer. According to the American Lung Association’s 2022 “State of Lung Cancer” report, nationally, only 5.8% of those with high exposure were screened.