Natalie Gibson was 55 when her doctor ordered a routine x-ray of her lungs, which found a quarter-sized nodule suspicious for lung cancer.
“I was devastated,” said Gibson, a long-time smoker. “Thoughts were racing through my mind like ‘am I going to live or die?’”
Fortunately, because the tumor was detected early, even before she had symptoms, the cancer was treatable with surgery alone.
On Thursday, five years later, Gibson stood with her UC Davis thoracic surgeon, Lisa M. Brown, at a special event in Oak Park to promote early detection of lung cancer using low-dose CT screening in those at high risk for the disease. The event was part of a multi-pronged effort at UC Davis Health to educate doctors, patients and the community at large about screening and why it saves lives.
“Lung cancer screening is a game changer,” said David Cooke, associate professor and head of thoracic surgery at UC Davis Health. “Most lung cancers detected by the scan are stages I or II with the highest rate of cure, especially today with advanced treatments like minimally invasive surgery and targeted and immunotherapies.”
The event at Fixin’s Soul Food Kitchen included representatives from UC Davis Health Medical Group, Comprehensive Cancer Center Office of Community Outreach and Engagement, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Clinical Translational Science Center and African American Faculty and Staff Association, along with a tobacco control expert and a local African American health organization leader.
“In our thoracic surgery program we believe in equality and great quality,” said Cooke. “It doesn’t matter your economic status or where you’re from. Everyone gets the same quality of care and access to a comprehensive cancer center. But it’s only as good as its commitment to the community.”
Cultural barriers exist in lung cancer screening and outcomes
Cooke explained that mistrust of the medical establishment, cultural influences and socioeconomic factors have impeded access to care for African Americans, making the population especially vulnerable to disparities in disease outcomes. Lung cancer screening, he said, can equalize the opportunity for care and cure.
There are an estimated 10,000 African Americans who smoke in Sacramento County currently and an estimated 28,000 former smokers. African Americans are more likely to test positive for cancer after screening but less likely to be screened and more likely to die from their disease.
While lung cancer screening with low-dose CT was proven to be effective in 2011, only 4% of the more than 7.6 million Americans eligible for screening have been screened because most doctors are not recommending it. Any adult 55-80 who has a 30-pack history of smoking (that’s the number of packs smoked per day multiplied by the number of years smoked) and either smokes currently or has quit within the past 15 years is eligible.)
In addition to community outreach, UC Davis Health is spreading the word through social and traditional media, and special patient materials in doctors’ offices. UC Davis Health also is collaborating with biotech company Genentech, which is running ads on billboards and transit stations in Sacramento about the importance of lung cancer screening.
Lung cancer patient grateful for UC Davis Health care
During the tasty meal of fried chicken and green tomatoes, macaroni and cheese and braised greens, Gibson thanked her lung cancer care team at UC Davis Health and announced she was celebrating five years in remission.
“Nothing has come back, and I am so thankful,” said Gibson, adding that she quit smoking for good. “I am feeling great. I truly hope I can help encourage someone else.”