Survivor urges early lung cancer screening

November 12, 2008 7:11:11 PM PST
You may be surprised to know that lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. People do not like to talk about it because there is a stigma associated with smoking, but lung cancer is also striking down more non-smokers. We talked to a lung cancer survivor whose family is using every tool available to save lives.

"I had a very serious tumor. It was behind my heart," said lung cancer survivor Bonnie J. addario.

Bonnie has survived lung cancer for nearly five years and is now working with her husband, Tony, and their entire family to raise awareness about the disease with an in your face campaign from coast to coast.

Bonnie and Tony were shocked to learn there is no standardized screening test for lung cancer that is paid for by health insurance, unlike mammograms or colonoscopies.

"When we tell people the statistics, they generally go, 'You're kidding. I didn't know that.' They didn't know that lung cancer kills more women than breast cancer. They didn't know that it's the number one cancer killer in the world," said Tony.

The statistics are staggering. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 212,000 cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed this year. Many of those will be non-smokers; 85 percent of those cases will not survive past five years.

"There's this false sense of security out there for people who don't smoke because they think, they ignore coughs, they ignore symptoms," said Bonnie.

The Addarios formed two foundations, one to encourage people to get tested for lung cancer and the other is being developed online to encourage scientists to share their research. They do not want others to learn the hard way about lung cancer, like Bonnie did. She was a former smoker with an unexplained cough. Her former doctors said she was fine, but her husband was suspicious.

"Tony suggested one day that we both go get one of those full body scans. So we did, and they found it," said Bonnie. "It was bad. It was diagnosed at stage 3B."

They live near Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, which has an aggressive lung cancer screening program. That is where Bonnie met the doctors who would save her life and join her in her fight to warn people about lung cancer.

"I think the public's awareness of lung cancer is very low. I think people don't realize there's 1.3 million cases of lung cancer in the world, every year," said Sequoia Hospital oncologist Dr. Fred Marcus.

Dr. Marcus never smoked, but learned his own devastating lesson two years ago. "I was diagnosed personally with lung cancer in 2006, out of the clear blue sky."

It caused a tumor in his brain and in his lung. He has had surgery and is doing OK.

One of the main goals of the Bonnie J. Addario Foundation is to get people screened for lung cancer, especially if they have high risk factors.

"I smoked for a long period of time," said Mike Jordan who was screened for lung cancer. "My father, he died of lung cancer."

"There's a lot of controversy about exposing people to x-rays and CT scans and some people believe that plain chest x-rays are useful. We don't think that's the case," said Dr. Marcus.

Right now, there is no early screening test that is approved by the government, and many doctors are not ready to encourage patients to needlessly expose themselves to radiation.

The controversy is so enormous that the National Cancer Institute has a long-term research study underway comparing x-rays to CT scans to detect lung cancer early. The national lung screening trial started in 2002 and is expected to finish in 2009.

"There is a need for people at risk to be screened, because if lung cancer is picked up only in late stages, the chances of curing it are very small," said Dr. Marcus.

The Addarios hosted a summit in San Francisco, bringing together scientists from around the world. They are also planning to build a medical institute where lung tissues can be stored for research.

"One area that we're focusing on right now are these community hospitals where there are a number of lung cancer surgeries that take place on a regular basis. And today, those specimens, those tumors are not collected. They're basically discarded," said Tony.

The projects keep Tony and Bonnie busy trying to save other lives now that Bonnie's been given a second chance.

"I'm doing good, I'm doing really good. I'm really thrilled to be here on a daily basis," said Bonnie.

The Bonnie J. Addario Foundation is hosting a tribute to the late Peter Jennings on Saturday, November 15 at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. Peter's wife and children will be there. Cheryl Jennings will be the emcee. For information on the benefit and the foundations, call (650) 367-LUNG or visit www.lungcancerfoundation.org.

To learn more about the current long-term trial to determine whether CT scans or x-rays are best, read The Back Story.