In recent years, technology has helped improve cancer care, providing people with more options, shorter timelines from diagnosis to post-treatment, and minimally invasive surgical options.
But the key to improving survival is early detection, so people have a chance to fight back.
While life-saving, early detection can feel impossible because many cancers don’t appear systemic until late stages — by which time they can devastatingly reduce a person’s chances of surviving.
Still, the medical staff at Banner Health MD Anderson Cancer Center at Northern Colorado Medical Center (NCMC) in Greeley is dedicated to the early detection of certain types of cancer and has technology unique in the region to make diagnosis and treatment easier for everyone.
Dr. Jason Tcheng, MD Anderson’s thoracic surgical oncologist, handles anything related to breast and bowel cancer. He vouched for the plan, saying it recognized the importance of early detection, especially for lung cancer. That’s why Banner Health has pushed its lung cancer screening program over the past few years.
“What we’ve learned in the last decade or so is that we’ve been behind the eight ball in detecting lung cancer early,” Tcheng said. “When we get patients into later stages, we’re losing options for them.”
December is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and Banner Health’s efforts and technologies showcase the options available to cancer patients today, including the ability to undergo minimally invasive lung surgery and more opportunities to cure rather than treat cancer.
screenings save lives
The Lung Cancer Screening Program offers low-dose CT scans to eligible patients. A person must meet certain criteria — an adult between the ages of 50 and 80, a 20-pack-year smoking history, current smoker or quit within the past 15 years — to be screened. According to Tcheng, most patients are identified and referred to the MD Anderson program through their primary care physicians.
Tcheng said this type of program is needed to see life-saving changes in the field of lung cancer, which is often asymptomatic in its early stages, making early diagnosis difficult.
Once symptoms of lung cancer — such as pneumonia with coughing, coughing up blood, or chest pain — become apparent, most people are already in an advanced stage.
“It’s going to appeal to patients who are going about their day-to-day work and are actually feeling fine, and unfortunately, they might have something brewing,” Tcheng said of the screening.
Five-year survival rates for different stages of lung cancer:
- Stage 1A1 to 1A3: 80-90% survival rate.
- Stage 2A to 2B: 60-70% survival rate.
- Stage 3A to 3C: 14-35% survival rate.
- Stage 4: Less than 10% survival rate.
Tcheng reassures the vast majority of those who qualify for the program that they don’t have cancer, but lung nodules have turned up in screenings for a handful of patients, a significant number of whom are ultimately diagnosed with lung cancer.
“These patients were treated earlier, had a better survival rate and had better overall outcomes,” he said. So that’s what we’re trying to achieve at NCMC, which is to create a program that makes these patients easily accessible and streamlines the process so they can be identified, diagnosed and treated. “
Staging is an important aspect of identifying lung cancer, Tcheng explained, because doctors choose to give patients the best outcome, regardless of how late the stage is.
Most patients in the first stage are treated with surgery alone — another reason for early detection of lung cancer, he said. Surgery is an ideal option because many patients wish to avoid chemotherapy or radiation.
Moving into the second phase, Tcheng said there are new systemic treatments called immunotherapy that can help reduce the amount and burden of chemotherapy. In stage III, most treatments include radiation or chemotherapy, and rarely surgery. And stage IV is usually palliative or supportive care, and some chemotherapy.
Fortunately, timely treatment after a lung cancer diagnosis has become easier and more convenient thanks to new technology from MD Anderson, Tcheng highlighted ION.
ION is a robotically-navigated bronchoscopy system — available nowhere else in northern Colorado — that enables patients to experience one-stop diagnosis and treatment as well as resection at the same time.
According to Tcheng, the technique is minimally invasive and leaves less room for error than other techniques widely used today. The robotic system enables physicians to track down smaller nodules with greater precision, higher yield and better diagnosis. It also gives doctors the opportunity to reach nodules that were previously inaccessible, and can reach nodules on both sides of the lung.
“It’s integrated into our robotic system, so if that system diagnoses something, we can treat it with surgical removal on the same day, under the same anesthesia event,” he said.
Many of Banner Health’s patients come from rural areas of Weld County, which means they have to travel several hours to get to MD Anderson, which is why staff have to use robotic systems, Tcheng said. The one-stop service eliminates back-and-forth travel and long waits between diagnosis and treatment, making patients happier, he said.
“It’s an inclusive, one-stop shop for cancer care across the board, not just lung cancer,” Tcheng said. That’s breast cancer, colon cancer, including gynecology, melanoma, and so on. “
Patients Swear by Easy Handling at Banner Health
Sterling’s Fred Jackson can attest to the ease with which he received a high-risk prostate cancer diagnosis in April. Because of his diagnosis, he was referred to MD Anderson Hospital in Greeley for brachytherapy—radiation therapy given next to or inside the area that needed treatment.
“People diagnosed with prostate cancer have a variety of options,” Jackson said. “Years ago, it was basically one surgery and that was it. Today, there are many different options.”
Initially, Jackson’s time at Greeley included a series of tests and interviews to see if he was eligible for surgery. Everything else before the surgery was done at his local Banner Health hospital, including external beam radiation, which helped a lot with his commute.
Jackson began receiving external radiation in Sterling for 45 minutes a day, Monday through Friday, over a period of one to five weeks. By June, he was ready for surgery at MD Anderson.
In Jackson’s case, his brachytherapy involved inserting 18 needles into his prostate. When the doctor creates the procedure to insert radiation into the needle, he has to remain still for several hours to hold the needle in place. The actual radiation portion only took 30-45 minutes.
“I’ve been well taken care of, and I’ve been really impressed with it all,” Jackson said. “Everyone was helpful. I was treated like a human being. I am very happy with the process and the outcome.”
Throughout the process, Jackson stresses that he never felt pain or discomfort and that every process he went through during the treatment was effortless. He urged those people to have regular check-ups and get biopsies for an early diagnosis.
“We achieved good results,” Tcheng said. “Our hospital stays are no more than two days, which is below the national average. Our surgery times are below the national average. Our complication rates are below the national average. We have a very comprehensive program here, and we provide Very proud of that.”