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Lung Cancer Screening ‘Saved My Life’

Patient who discovers illness through screening now cancer-free

by Katie Pence

Habits—both good and bad—can lead to a domino effect for those around us.

For Norman Taylor, 57, watching a family member undergo treatment at the UC Health Barrett Cancer Center for advanced lung cancer was what led to his interest in quitting smoking and the University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute’s Lung Cancer Screening Program.

“I started smoking when I was 16, so I’d been a smoker for almost 40 years,” he says. “I thought I should probably sign up for the Win by Quitting smoking cessation program, which went hand in hand with the lung cancer screening program. They prescribed me Chantix, and I noticed a difference in my cigarette cravings immediately—I was down from a pack and a half to about seven cigarettes a day. Also, my scan came back fine, so I started slacking a bit. It was easy for me, so I thought, ‘I can quit at any time.”

In a lung cancer screening, a low-dose CT scan is used; the X-ray tube rotates around the patient during the imaging test to create a computerized 3D picture of the chest, which can detect very small abnormalities. This has become the standard in lung cancer screening for eligible patients like Norman—participants between 55 and 80 years old who have smoked at least one pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years.

He says he spent the next several months reverting back to his old smoking habits and was surprised to get a call a year later from the screening program, reminding him to come in for his follow-up scan.

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“I didn’t realize that was included as part of the program, but I made an appointment and got my scan,” he says. “So, when I got a call three days later from my primary care doctor, letting me know that I had cancer, I was taken aback to say the least. I had no symptoms. If it weren’t for the screening, I would have never known until it was likely too late.”

Norman says he already “had a guy” and sought out the care of John Morris, MD, professor of medicine at the UC College of Medicine, UC Health oncologist and co-director of the UC Cancer Institute’s Lung Cancer Center, in fall 2017.

“I called Rebecca (Thornton), his nurse who I’d dealt with in the past in my caretaking role; I had her on speed dial—I had an appointment to see (Dr. Morris) immediately,” he says.

Scans were done and tests were run, and Norman was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer.

“Dr. Morris set up an appointment for me to see Dr. (Sandra) Starnes, who determined she couldn’t do surgery at the time,” he says, referring to Starnes who is a professor of surgery, UC Health thoracic surgeon and co-director of the Lung Cancer Center with Morris. “The tumor was pushing up against my pulmonary artery, so they would need to remove my whole lung if they were to do surgery at that time. They decided on three rounds of chemotherapy before scheduling me to see Dr. Starnes again. I told them to go ahead and slam me with the chemo—give it to me good. I wanted this cancer gone.”

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A fourth round of chemotherapy was ordered, just to make sure Norman was on a treatment regimen while waiting to undergo repeat imaging. Scans showed the tumor appeared to be shrinking and he would no longer need to have his entire lung removed.

“In May 2018, I went in to have surgery done, the removal of the upper lobe of my left lung, and when I came out of that surgery and saw Dr. Starnes for follow-up, I was told, ‘We didn’t see any cancer; you had a complete response to the chemotherapy, and no cancer was left,’” he says.

Norman says that on scans, it looked like the tumor was still present, but when Starnes operated, there was only scar tissue—no tumor.

“Dr. Morris says only 2 percent of patients have a total response, like I did,” he says. “I was given two more treatments to ensure, as Dr. Morris says, that there were ‘no more pesky little cancer cells’ hanging around. Now, I’m cancer and smoke free. I had my last cigarette just shy of three weeks before my surgery, and I’ve had no cravings for a cigarette. My wife (Migdalia) also stopped smoking and is part of the screening program as well.”

Norman, who says he’s still recovering but is anxious to get back to some home improvement projects which were planned before his diagnosis, is extremely grateful for his team at UC Health—and he stresses that word “team.”

“I am blessed—they saved my life,” he says. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and I was destined to be at UC Health. I can’t say enough good things about my team and the way they all worked together for my care. The communication among them was incredible—I learned they discuss all cases over a tumor board, with all experts in the room to talk about the best strategies for care. Working together is the way the right thing is done, and I could tell they were all working for me—Dr. Starnes and Dr. Morris were not afraid of cancer, and they were and are ready to fight for their patients, like me.”

To find out more about the Lung Cancer Screening Program, call 513-584-5864 (LUNG).

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