Karen Hasselman was very familiar with MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center’s medical oncologist, Dr. Nilesh Vora. Seven years ago, her husband had a lung cancer scare and had continued to see Dr. Vora for follow-up appointments to monitor his health. He would eventually develop cancer.
Because of his health history, Karen’s husband also had regular check-ups with pulmonologist, Dr. Jimmy Johannes. During one appointment, Dr. Johannes recommended Karen get a lung cancer screening. Nearly 90 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking, and Karen had been smoking for nearly 50 years.
The lung cancer screening Karen underwent was a low-dose radiation computed tomography (CT) scan that took less than a minute. Lung cancer screenings with a low dose CT scan have been proven to detect lung cancer at an earlier stage, before symptoms arise. That was the case for Karen. She had developed limited stage small cell lung cancer.
It was Karen’s turn to battle cancer, and she couldn’t think of anyone better than Dr. Vora to help her do it. Just as he had done for the past seven years, Dr. Vora would once again be there for the Hasselman’s.
Detecting a Hidden Cancer
About 10% to 15% of all lung cancers are small cell lung cancer. This type of lung cancer tends to grow and spread faster than non-small cell lung cancer. About 70 percent of people with small cell lung cancer will have cancer that has already spread at the time they are diagnosed.
“Karen wasn’t exhibiting any symptoms, so if she wasn’t proactive and didn’t have the lung cancer screening, her cancer would have gone undetected,” says Dr. Vora. “When lung cancer is caught late, it often progresses to an advanced stage, making it more difficult to treat. Because her cancer was caught early, it hadn’t spread beyond her lungs.”
At her first appointment with Dr. Vora, he laid out the plan. Karen would undergo radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously. Used in combination, the radiation and chemotherapy would kill the cancer cells and keep them from growing.
“At first it didn’t seem real,” says Karen. “I didn’t have any symptoms, so I was more in shock, but I had 100 percent trust in Dr. Vora.”
Karen is finishing up her treatments, and she feels great. Karen leans on Dr. Vora, friends and family, especially her twin sister, for support.
With that strong support system, she has a positive outlook and approaches life with gratitude. But mostly, she wants others to learn from her experience.
Karen explains, “Whether you sick or not, go get checked. With my type of cancer, if it’s caught late, you don’t have a lot of time. Do it for yourself and your family. This screening bought me several more years with my family, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
A lung cancer screening is recommended if you:
- Are between 55 and 77-years-old and
- Are currently a smoker or have quit smoking within the past 15 years and
- Have smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years (or the equivalent)
If any abnormalities are found during the screening, the Lung Nodule Center at Long Beach Medical Center works with each individual to rule out cancer or get them on the best path for diagnosis.
Regardless of the outcome of a screening, smoking cessation is still one of the best defenses against lung cancer. The accumulated risk from smoking never completely disappears. However, quitting will help decrease the risk.
“My husband Rich and I gradually cut down to five cigarettes a day on our own,” says Karen. “We stalled there. In hindsight, I wish we had gotten help instead of trying on our own. It might have made a difference in our outcome. The look on my family’s faces when I told them I had cancer and the fear the word cancer brings was enough to make me quit those last five. My husband passed away on Oct. 26, 2019 from his lung disease. His insistence I have an early screening might have saved my life. He was my hero until the end.”
- Oncology - Medical, Oncology & Hematology