February 6, 2023

In recent years, technology has helped improve cancer treatment, giving people more options, a shorter diagnosis to post-treatment timeline and minimally invasive surgery options.

But the key to seeing survival rates rise is early detection, giving people a fighting chance to fight back.

While life-saving, an early finding can feel impossible since many cancers don’t present as systematic until later stages — by then devastatingly decreasing a person’s survival rate.

Nevertheless, medical staff at Banner Health’s MD Anderson Cancer Center located at North Colorado Medical Center (NCMC) in Greeley is dedicated to catching certain types of cancers early and having one-of-a-kind technology in the region that makes diagnosis and treatment easier for all.

Dr. Jason Tcheng, a thoracic surgical oncologist at MD Anderson, handles anything cancer-related in the chest and gut. He vouches for the program, saying it recognizes the importance of early detection, specifically for lung cancer. That is why Banner Health has pushed for a lung cancer screening program in the past few years.

“What we’ve learned over the last decade or so is that we have been behind the eight ball on catching lung cancer early,” Tcheng said. “We are losing options for patients when we get them with later stages.”

As December marks National Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Banner Health’s efforts and technology showcase the options available nowadays for cancer patients, including the ability to perform minimally invasive lung surgery and more opportunities to cure rather than treat cancer.

Screenings save lives

The lung cancer screening program provides a low-dose CT scan for patients who qualify. A person must meet certain criteria — adults ages 50 to 80 years, who have a 20-pack-year smoking history, currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years — to receive a screening. Most patients are identified and referred to the MD Anderson program via primary care physicians, according to Tcheng.

Tcheng said this type of program is needed to see life-saving changes in the world of lung cancer since an early diagnosis is hard to catch due to lung cancer typically not showing any symptoms in the early stages.

Once symptoms of lung cancer — such as pneumonia with a cough, coughing up blood or chest pain — become visible, most people are already in the late stages.

“It’s going to catch these patients that are going about their daily business and actually feeling great and, unfortunately, may have something brewing,” Tcheng said about the screening.

The different stages of lung cancer’s five-year survival rates:

  • Stage 1A1 to 1A3: 80-90% survival rate.
  • Stage 2A to 2B: 60-70% survival rate.
  • Stage 3A to 3C: 14-35% survival rate.
  • Stage 4: Less than 10% survival rate.

Tcheng reassured a vast majority of those who qualify for the program are in the clear for cancer, but pulmonary nodules have shown up on a handful of patients’ screenings, and a fair amount of those people end up receiving a lung cancer diagnosis.

“These patients are being treated earlier and have a better survival, have better outcomes overall,” he said. So that is what we’re trying to accomplish here at NCMC, is to create a program where these patients have easy access and a streamlined process to go through so that they can get identified, diagnosed and treated.”

Treatment improvements

Staging is an important aspect when identifying lung cancer because it’s how doctors proceed with options to give patients the best possible outcome despite how advanced the stage is, Tcheng explained.

He said a majority of those in stage one are treated with surgery alone — another reason to catch lung cancer in its early stages. Surgery is an ideal option since many patients come in hoping to avoid experiencing chemotherapy or radiation.

Going into stage two, Tcheng said there are new systemic therapies called immunotherapy that help reduce the amount of chemotherapy and burden. In stage three, that’s where the bulk of the treatment includes radiation or chemotherapy, and rarely surgery. While stage four is generally palliative or supportive treatment, and some chemotherapy.

Fortunately, prompt treatment after a lung cancer diagnosis has become a lot more accessible and convenient because of new technology at MD Anderson, Tcheng said, highlighting the ION.

The ION is a robotic navigational bronchoscopy system — offered nowhere else in northern Colorado — that allows patients to experience a one-stop-shop of diagnosis and treatment with resection all at the same time.

The technology is minimally invasive with less room for error than other current and widely used technology, according to Tcheng. The robotic system enables doctors to go after smaller nodules with more precision, higher yield and better diagnoses. It also gives doctors an opportunity to reach former unreachable nodules, and can reach nodules on both sides of the lung.

“It’s integrated into our robotic system so that if something is diagnosed with that system, we can treat it with surgical resection that same day under the same anesthetic event,” he said.

Tcheng said many of Banner Health’s patients are from rural parts of Weld County, meaning they have to travel a few hours to MD Anderson, which is why the staff was compelled by the robotic system. The one-stop-shop eliminating traveling back and forth, as well as waiting long periods of time between a diagnosis and treatment make for happier patients, he said.

“The whole gamut, it’s an inclusive, one-stop-shop kind of deal for cancer care, and that’s not just lung cancer,” Tcheng said. That’s breast cancer, colon cancer, that includes gynec, melanoma, those kinds of things.”

Patient vows easy process at Banner Health

Fred Jackson of Sterling can attest to an easy-going ride toward treatment after receiving a high-risk prostate cancer diagnosis in April. As a result of his diagnosis, he was refered to MD Anderson in Greeley to undergo brachytherapy — a form of radiation therapy next to or inside the area requiring treatment.

“A person that’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer has several options,” Jackson said. “Years ago, basically, it was a surgery and that was it. But today, there are a lot of different options.”

At first, Jackson’s time in Greeley consisted of a series of tests and interviews to see if he qualified for the procedure. Everything else prior to the procedure was conducted at his local Banner Health hospital, including external radiation, which was helpful due to his commute.

For one to five weeks, Monday through Friday and 45 minutes a day, Jackson began receiving external radiation in Sterling. By June, he was ready to undergo his procedure at MD Anderson.

In Jackson’s case, his brachytherapy consisted of 18 needles getting inserted into his prostate. While doctors created the program to insert radiation into the needles, he had to remain still for a few hours to keep the needles in place. The actual radiation portion only took 30-45 minutes.

“I received great care and was really impressed with all that,” Jackson said. “Everyone was helpful. I was treated as an individual. I am happy with the procedure and the outcome.”

Throughout the whole process, Jackson emphasized he never felt pain or discomfort, and every process he went through during his treatment was easy. He urged those to get regularly scheduled check up’s and to follow through with biopsies to catch a diagnosis early on.

“We have great outcomes,” Tcheng said. “We have hospital stays that are two days or less, which is less than the national average. Our operative times are less than the national average. We have complication rates less than the national average. We have a very comprehensive program here that we’re very proud of.”

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