Deemarie Pinfield thought she was going to die. An MRI had just shown a spot on her lung and the lifelong smoker’s doctor recommended further testing for cancer.
Her husband had died of prostate cancer 12 years earlier and her brother died of kidney cancer, so she expected the same fate.
“I can say this, generally speaking, most people are going to think the worst,” Deemarie said. “Trust it from a girl who has had many surgeries in life, you think the worst.”
She had good reason to fear, according to Dr. Curtis Quinn of Elliot Hospital Thoracic Surgery. Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer and is usually caused by smoking. It kills more people than breast and colon cancers combined.
The key to survival is early screening to detect lung cancer, he said. The Elliot and Southern NH Health both offer early screening through the Low Dose CT Lung Cancer Screening Program, which provides annual screenings to qualified, high-risk patients.
A biopsy confirmed Deemarie’s fears. It was a malignant tumor, but the early detection caught the cancer while it was still Stage 1.
After the initial shock and fear, Deemarie steeled herself to fight the disease. It was the early detection and determined attitude that helped save her life, she said. “I personally said ‘it’s not my time yet, I have many more things to do for God.’ I got very spiritual about it. I said, ‘I'm not done with the world down here for God.’ I’m the kind of person that always has a positive attitude. If you sit and worry, it’s a waste of time.”
Deemarie sought out Dr. Quinn to treat her cancer. He performed robot-assisted, minimally invasive surgery to remove the cancer and surrounding area of the lung. A cutting-edge technique called cryoanalgesia was used to freeze the nearby nerves for six weeks.
Half the patients who undergo this two-pronged treatment never need opioid painkillers and the other half only need a very low dosage of non-narcotic painkillers, Dr. Quinn said.
Early Detection Saves Lives
Early detection through proactive screening saves lives, Dr. Quinn stressed. “Lung cancer is treatable when it’s stage 1 or 2. The problem is, when it’s diagnosed, it’s usually stage 3 or 4 and not curable.”
While Deemarie’s cancer was caught early on during an MRI that was part of treatment for post-polio degenerative disease, as a lifelong smoker she would also qualify for the Low Dose CT Lung Cancer Screening Program.
Smokers 50 to 80 years old are most likely to develop lung cancer. This program identifies those at the highest risk for lung cancer and provides annual CT scans as part of a patient’s preventive care.
“The goal here is prevention and early detection to save lives,” said Fatima Rocco, the Lung Cancer Screening Program coordinator for Elliot Health System.
If an abnormality is detected on the patient’s CT scan, it goes to a Thoracic Tumor Conference made up of a multi-disciplinary team including thoracic surgery, pulmonology, radiation oncology, medical oncology, and radiology. That conference is tasked with developing a treatment plan unique to each patient’s needs.
The Elliot has offered its Lung Cancer Screening Program since March 2017. It is a Designated Lung Cancer Screening Center by the American College of Radiology and a Designated Center of Excellence by the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer. The Elliot averages 80-100 screenings a month. Through September it has screened more than 3,500 patients, including initial and follow-up screenings. It has diagnosed 51 lung cancer cases and the majority of those were Stage 1.
To qualify for insurance coverage of a Low Dose CT Lung Cancer Screening, you must be 50 to 80 years old and be a smoker or have quit within the last 15 years. You must also have what’s called a 20-pack year history, meaning you smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years, two packs for 10 years, or some other combination that adds up to 20.
Screenings include a CT scan of the chest without contrast. It’s like an X-ray exam but with better resolution. “It is a quick exam,” said Rocco. “You are in and out, from check-in time to check-out time, in a total of about 20 minutes.”
As with mammography and colonoscopy, it’s recommended that screening be done yearly. Treatment will depend on the results of the CT scan.
Deemarie surprised Dr. Quinn with her determination to get up after surgery. Under Dr. Quinn’s orders, she began walking but with exceptional willpower that he didn’t expect. She walked the hospital corridor every hour on the hour for the week she was at The Elliot. She still walks regularly either up and down the hall outside her condominium or inside the Mall of New Hampshire and has been cancer-free for three years.
“Being cancer-free has made me appreciate the little things in life and the motivation I learned from Dr. Quinn is: Every day is a good day if you make it that way.”
For more information about the Lung Cancer Screening Program visit https://www.elliothospital.org/website/lung-cancer-screening.php.