BILLINGS – Lung cancer is difficult to detect, which often meant that it was found too late for patients to be cured.
“Historically, lung cancer was one of those cancers that often didn’t have a lot of symptoms until it was too late,” said Dr. Eric Bruen of St. Vincent Healthcare. “It was one of those cancers that people would find out they had and then they wouldn’t have much time left afterwards.”
Bruen said doctors would typically check for this cancer with a chest X-ray, but that it wasn’t particularly effective in finding smaller cancers in particular.
A few years ago, St. Vincent began its low-dose CT scan program. The hospital was one of the first in Montana to offer this technology. The scans have less radiation than a traditional CT scan, but is more precise than an X-ray.
The technology is used to track the health of those who are at risk for lung cancer.
To qualify, patients must be between 55 and 77 years old, have quit smoking within the last 15 years or still smoke, and have a 30 pack a year history of smoking.
“The way that is calculated is if somebody smoked one pack a day for 30 years, they have a 30 pack year history,” said Dr. Bruen. “If they smoked two packs a day for 15 years, they have a 30 pack year history.”
Coleen Badgett was one of the patients who met the requirements. She had smoked for about 15 years, and quit five years ago.
“I did not have any indications,” said Badgett. “Never felt bad.”
The first scan done, doctors noticed a small mass in one of Badgett’s lungs. It wasn’t particularly concerning to them at the time, but it is something they wanted to keep an eye on.
Badgett had another scan about six months later, but it didn’t show much growth. It was in the third scan of Badgett’s lungs, that doctors noticed the mass growing and changing.
A biopsy showed it was cancer.
“Anytime they tell you the big “C-word” it’s very scary,” said Badgett. “But I was reassured by the surgeon that it’s – we can go in and we can just take it out – cut it out and you will be fine.”
In January, Badgett had the lower part of one of her lungs removed, and is now cancer free.
It is an outcome that Bruen credits, in large part, to the early detection the low dose CT scan offers.
“You can catch it so early it’s just amazing,” said Bruen. “This disease that used to be terminal for a lot of people…we are catching it at stage one where they can get it out and be done with it.”