GR8 Health: How a $49 lung scan saved a life

For lifelong smokers, a preventative and low-cost lung scan could be a life saver. Debbie Kern, 61, of Noblesville, was a smoker of 44 years and received a Low-dose helical CT scan which detected two spots on her lower left lung.

“I had a bad cough for a long time,” says Kern, who admits to smoking between two and three packs of cigarettes a day.

Kern’s mother, Carol Swaynie, 82, had been concerned about her daughter’s chronic cough but could not convince Kern to see a doctor about it.

“Then one day I picked up the paper and here was this full-page IU ad and it says, ‘IU needs you if you’ve been a smoker all your life,” recalls Swaynie.

The ad was for a $49 lung CT scan meant to detect cancer in its early stages. You qualify for the scan if you are older than 55, have at least a 30 pack year smoking history (the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day multiplied by the number of years spent smoking), you did not quit smoking more than 15 years ago, and have not had a CT scan in the last 18 months.

“At the bottom of the page it said, ‘once you have this done, you’ll know everything you need to know about your lungs,’” says Swaynie. “That’s what I wanted [for Debbie].”

Swaynie drove to her daughter’s house to deliver the ad.

“I walked in and gave her the ad and put a $50 bill down on the dining room table and said ‘here’s $50 and it don’t get any better than that.’”

Kern waited a month before setting the appointment to appease her mother. One week after the scan, Kern was contacted directly by a thoracic surgeon concerning two spots on her lower left lung. After much more testing, doctors decided Debbie needed surgery.

“The doctor told me I had to start looking at surgery on my lower left lung,” recalls Kern. “My husband and I both just sat there speechless, because I was one of those people that thought ‘it’s not going to happen to me;’ it was an eye opener.”

Dr. Thomas Birdas, Thoracic Surgeon at IU Health Simon Cancer Center, performed the surgery to remove Debbie’s lower left lung, which revealed she had Stage II lung cancer.

“Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the country and in Indiana as well,” says Birdas. “One of the reasons is because people present with advanced stages because they don’t have any symptoms — that’s why the screening for lung cancer is so important.”

Debbie has since quit smoking with the help of her family and church pastor and considers herself lucky.

“Because I had this $49 lung scan, and it was caught early, I am cancer free – no radiation, no chemo,” says Kern. “Who knows where I’d be today — I might be Stage IV by now and no surgery possible.”

Carol is just happy her daughter is healthy.

“That’s the best $50 I’ve ever spent,” says Swaynie.

IU Health reports the incidence rate and mortality rate of lung cancer in Indiana are well above the national averages at 15 percent and 16 percent, respectively, accounting for more than 4,000 Hoosier deaths in 2008 alone.

IU Health says based on its reports, only 4 percent of the patients screened show something greater than a 5 percent chance of developing cancer.

For more information on setting up a lung CT scan, click here.

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