Lung cancer is the nation’s leading cause of cancer-related death. Symptoms often don’t appear until a late stage, when treatment options are limited. Today, lung cancer is being detected and addressed in much earlier stages thanks to the medical expertise and advanced technology at Covenant Health Fort Sanders Regional.
Registered Nurse Tara Novosel has been an oncology nurse for over 17 years. She is currently working as a nurse navigator, a role that helps patients facing a cancer diagnosis throughout their care and treatment. In April 2023, her role became dedicated to lung patients when Fort Sanders Regional launched a lung nodule program to help those who are at risk of developing lung cancer.
Identifying and Diagnosing Lung Nodules
The lung nodule program identifies and diagnoses nodules found on the lung in an early stage. By identifying potential cancer-causing tissue, the care team can monitor a patient’s nodule and take appropriate steps for treatment.
“When I moved to Tennessee from Pennsylvania, I was surprised at the number of people who are smokers, and those who started at a young age,” Novosel says.
Low-dose CT scans can detect early-stage lung nodules and are “an important part of healthcare for adults who have smoked,” she says.
“Ninety percent of the nodules we detect with screenings are benign,” Novosel explains. “If a nodule is detected, we watch it for two years with follow-up imaging. We want to be certain the area does not increase in size, which may be cause for concern.”
Novosel’s message is simple: Low-dose CT scans are a quick and painless procedure that can help screen for early signs of lung cancer.
“Our goal is to catch lung cancer at Stage 1 or 2 when there are more treatment options, which makes five-year survival rates much greater. The procedure takes less than five minutes,” she says.
Who Should Receive a Low-dose CT Scan?
Low-dose CT lung screenings are recommended for people who are at high risk for lung cancer. Individuals ages 50-77 who have smoked at least an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for 20 years are eligible. This includes people who still smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
Novosel says primary care physicians often identify patients who may be eligible for lung cancer screening.
“I want people to know it’s important to be honest with your doctor about smoking. We are not going to judge anyone for tobacco use. We are here to help give you the tools to get screened in hopes to improve quality of life or prolong your life,” she says.
“We work directly with each patient’s primary care provider to determine the best plan. That’s the most important thing – that the patient’s best interest is at the center of the care.”
What Does a Low- Dose CT Involve?
Low-dose CT lung screening is one of the easiest screening exams you can have. The exam takes less than 10 seconds. No medications are given and no needles are used. You can eat before and after the exam. You can wear regular clothes as long as the clothing on your chest does not contain metal. You must, however, be able to hold your breath for at least six seconds while the chest scan is being taken.
Studies have shown that low-dose CT lung screening can lower the risk of death from lung cancer by 20 percent in people who are at high risk.
The Importance of Early Detection
Novosel likens a lung cancer screening in current and past smokers over 50 to women over age 40 getting a screening mammogram. “People who are perfectly healthy and have no issues or symptoms can still get screened, especially if there is a history of smoking,” she says.
“This screening is valuable to patients because we can detect even the smallest nodules and follow them over time to track any changes. After the disease has progressed and the patient is experiencing symptoms, it’s harder to treat.
“If a nodule does enlarge, we can easily go in and take a biopsy,” Novosel explains. “If any cancer is detected, the treatment can start earlier and keep the cancer from spreading outside the lung.”
Fort Sanders Regional pulmonology uses an innovative robotic bronchoscope for issues affecting the chest cavity, to support the lung program. The technology serves as a “GPS of the lungs.” A team led by a heart and lung expert addresses lung nodules and other issues such as fluid buildup, chest wall tumors, asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis, COPD, emphysema, diaphragm paralysis and hernias.
Covenant Health provided information and quotes for this story.