Lung Cancer Leads Cancer Deaths in U.S.

ThedaCare Empowers the Community to Know Risks and Get Screened

November 9, 2020

APPLETON, Wis. – With lung cancer remaining the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, November’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month is an important time to examine whether you’re at risk and can benefit from screening.

While anyone can develop lung cancer, there are key risk factors, including smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke, exposure to radon gas, certain lung diseases and exposure to asbestos and other chemicals explained Harsha Poola, MD, an Oncologist and Hematologist with ThedaCare Cancer Care. He also noted lung cancer affects men slightly more often than women.

“The most important thing you can do to help avoid lung cancer is not to smoke, and if you do smoke, quit now,” said Dr. Poola. “The body experiences significant benefits over time after giving up a smoking habit.”

In fact, the benefits of smoking cessation continue for decades, with the risk of lung cancer dropping by about half after 10 to 15 years of quitting, he said. Former smokers also can significantly decrease their risk of other cancers, including esophageal, pancreatic, kidney, bladder, cervical, throat and mouth cancers. Over time, these patients also see risk of heart attack and stroke drop to levels similar to those people who never smoked.

“It is also a good practice to stay away from secondhand smoke,” Dr. Poola said. “The likelihood of a nonsmoker contracting lung cancer increases by 20 to 30 percent if they are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.”

Common symptoms associated with lung cancer include coughing that worsens or doesn’t improve, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, chest pain, constant fatigue or unexplained weight loss.

“Symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer is advanced, so it’s important to reduce your risk factors,” Dr. Poola said.

Those with high risk factors should talk with their provider about scheduling a screening. Recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force call for a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan for certain patients who smoke heavily now or have in the past.

Center of Excellence

In November of 2019, ThedaCare Cancer Care officially launched work to develop and complete five Tumor Site-Specific Centers of Excellence (CoE). Those CoEs compliment the Breast Cancer Center of Excellence that has been in place for more than a decade. An additional Center is focused on lung cancer.

“The goal of becoming a Center of Excellence is to streamline, standardize and expedite the diagnosis and treatment of all lung cancer patients in the region,” said Donna Boehm, director of ThedaCare Cancer Care. “The ThedaCare lung cancer program is a multidisciplinary group that includes medical oncology, radiation oncology, surgery, radiology, pathology, pulmonology and support services, with specialists located throughout the Fox Valley. It demonstrates our commitment to providing the best cancer care services to those living in Northeast and Central Wisconsin.”

Components of the Lung Cancer Center of Excellence include:

Lung Screening Program 

The goal of lung cancer screening through low-dose CT scan is to enable detection of cancer before it has spread. Treatment can then be provided. ThedaCare started this program in 2018. During the first year, 1,300 patients were screened. Criteria for screening includes:

  • Age 55 to 77
  • History of tobacco use of at least 30 pack years
  • Currently smoking or have quit within the last 15 years

Lung Nodule Clinic

The creation of a lung nodule clinic serves patients with suspicious findings identified on imaging. This clinic is located at Fox Valley Pulmonary Medicine and is in partnership with the ThedaCare Cancer Care. 

Lung Nurse Navigator

Lung navigators are available to help patients navigate the system and coordinate their care, from time of cancer diagnosis through treatment into survivorship. 

“These are just three aspects of recent programming implementations to improve screening, early detection and treatment of patients with lung cancer,” said Boehm. “Additional developments include the creation of a Lung Cancer Tumor Board, clinical trials and more. All of the work we do is aimed at providing coordinated care for our patients.”

“With Us Every Step of the Way”

Sharon Ehlke is one of the patients who said she’s benefited from the coordinated care at ThedaCare. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in spring 2020.

“I didn’t feel well when I returned from Arizona, I had a steady cough that just wouldn’t go away,” she recalled. “After I went to the Emergency Department, follow up tests were done and it was then that I received the diagnosis. It was a miracle everything happened the way it did, otherwise, the cancer might not have been detected when it was.”

Ehlke explained she was a smoker, and she wished she was more aware of the warning signs of lung cancer. Since her diagnosis, she has been receiving treatment at the Regional Cancer Center, which included radiation.

“I could not ask for better care,” she explained. “Each person has been wonderful to me.”

Her daughter, Lisa Zaddack, who is also a ThedaCare team member, agreed that care coordination was extremely important for her mother.

“We are confident we are getting the best care possible,” Zaddack said. “We do not have to schedule any appointment, the navigators help us through everything. With a cancer diagnosis, communication is important to ensure everyone is on the same page. And we’ve had safe, coordinated care where it is all explained to us.”   

Ehlke shared that her family plays a strong role in her treatment, including her granddaughter who shows horses competitively. She has dedicated all of her rides through November to her grandmother. To show her support during the rides, she weaves a lung cancer pin into her horse’s mane.

“It means everything to me,” Ehlke said. “For her to think about me and dedicate her rides to my fight is incredibly sweet. It’s those small things that make this disease manageable.”