It might seem odd to say that Linda Vance is a lucky person. After all, Vance fought lung cancer. But she is lucky; her cancer was discovered in stage 1. Because of that early diagnosis, she had a much better prognosis than most people facing the disease.
According to her surgeon, Dr. Richard Maley of St. Clair Hospital, most people with lung cancer aren’t diagnosed until the disease has advanced into stage 4, and is much harder to battle.
“One of the biggest problems with lung cancer is that there are no symptoms. It isn’t until it spreads and something else happens—someone has headaches because it has spread to their brain, or their bones ache because it has spread to their bones—and then it is discovered,” Maley says.
‘You did this to yourself’
Now retired, Vance, 71, had been a nurse manager in the coronary unit at St. Clair Hospital. She was getting back into a routine of annual health checkups when her lung cancer was discovered. She recognized the irony of being a nurse and not getting regular checkups.
“I know this is terrible, but I hadn’t seen a doctor for many, many years,” she says.
And that wasn’t Vance’s only risky behavior.
“I was a closet smoker. I wouldn’t let people see me smoking,” Vance says. “I worked in health care and in the coronary field, so how would it look if I was smoking, when I knew better?”
Vance had her first comprehensive physical in 2014 and was given a clean bill of health. In 2015, for her “second annual” as she referred to it, a CT scan revealed a tumor in the lower lobe of her left lung. Further tests revealed it was cancer. Vance says she wasn’t surprised.
“For years in the back of my head, I kept saying, ‘Quit smoking, quit smoking.’ When the cancer was discovered, I thought, ‘You did this yourself. Now move forward one day at a time,’” Vance says.
Help from a friendly face
As Vance moved forward, she chose Maley for her doctor, knowing his reputation and record. He suggested a surgery as the best course of action, and explained the process every step of the way, something that was important to Vance.
“I knew him before (my illness). But as a patient, it is, of course, very different. But he was wonderful and compassionate, just as I had hoped,” she says. “He kept me very informed which meant so much to me.”
On Nov. 18, 2015, Vance had the lower lobe of her left lung removed, along with a few lymph nodes. The next day she was up and walking around. Three days later, she was discharged from the hospital. Since Vance’s cancer was stage 1, the lymph nodes were cancer-free, and doctors felt confident the cancer had been removed, Vance didn’t need further treatment.
Making the catch
That early diagnosis was key to Vance’s survival. People diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer have less than a 10% chance of survival, Maley says. With a stage 1 diagnosis, there is a 70% to 85% chance.
“The question is, how do we catch more in stage 1?” Maley says. It helps to identify those who are at greater risk due to environmental factors or a smoking habit, he says.
“These people should work with their doctors to see if they could benefit from a low-dose CT scan,” he says.
It was this kind of scan that alerted Vance’s doctors. In addition to the early diagnosis, Maley says Vance’s positive attitude helped her through treatment and recovery.
“She looked at it with a glass-half-full outlook,” Maley says.
Vance returns to the doctors for periodic lung checkups, something that will become less necessary over time. Today, she feels no ill effects from the disease or her treatment.
“I’m active, I golf, I feel wonderful,” she says. “Aren’t I lucky?”