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Early detection, early removal: getting the jump on lung cancer

Better screening and minimally invasive surgery are changing the prognosis for patients with early-stage lung cancer.

By Quinn Eastman | Photos by Jack Kearse

Story Photo

Thoracic surgeon Manu Sancheti performs minimally invasive lung surgery at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital using a tiny video camera.

We breathe in and out, every minute of every day. Our lungs are critical for life. Yet if a group of cells in someone's lungs starts growing into a tumor, that person usually can't see it or feel it—until it becomes large enough to be dangerous.

The lungs are encased in the ribs, with few nerve endings. So a tumor has to grow quite large before it starts to take away enough lung capacity to cause discomfort or make someone cough. Even below that threshold, as a tumor becomes larger, it is more likely for some cells to separate off and metastasize.

Early detection of lung cancer by imaging offers an opportunity to catch a tumor before it grows and spreads. In 2011, the National Lung Screening Trial, involving more than 50,000 participants, established the life-saving value of lung cancer screening by lowdose CT (computed tomography) for people with a history of heavy smoking. In the last two years, both Medicare and private insurance began to cover the screening procedure.

"Better screening is changing the outcomes for lung cancer patients by allowing us to accurately find these tumors earlier," says Allan Pickens, a Winship thoracic surgeon and director of minimally invasive thoracic surgery and thoracic oncology at Emory University Hospital Midtown. "When we find these tumors earlier, they are generally of a smaller size and have not had the chance to spread to other parts of the body, lymph nodes, or other organs."

Because of more screening, doctors are increasingly discovering lung cancers when they are small: in many cases, less than two centimeters wide. Clinical studies indicate this is a point when it may be possible to treat the cancer by surgery alone. In addition, surgeons have been shifting to minimally invasive approaches, also known as video-assisted thoracic surgery.

Becky Huff had been seeing radiologists, not primarily for her lungs, but to follow up on findings of calcification after a mammogram. As a result, in a CT scan of her breasts, nodules were detected in her lungs. Now 67, she quit smoking more than two decades ago, and wonders whether working in a smoke-filled office also contributed to her cancer risk.

For two years, doctors at Emory, led by pulmonologist Gerald Staton, monitored her lungs with additional CT scans every six months. Then, a change in the appearance of the nodules, along with an inconclusive biopsy, led her to consult Pickens. Before surgery, a different type of imaging—a PET scan—was performed to gauge the possibility that cancer had spread.

"To me, that was another safeguard that they knew precisely what they needed to do beforehand," Huff says.

Using two small incisions on the side of her body, Pickens removed the upper lobe of her left lung. Two months later, in a similar procedure, he removed a segment from her right lung. When pathologists examined the removed tissue and samples from her lymph nodes, they detected no signs that the tumors had infiltrated the lymph nodes. That meant she could forgo chemotherapy and radiation.

"This is an example of when we were able to get there early, before the cancer has progressed," Pickens says.

To be sure, her recovery from the surgeries included some pain. She had trouble finding a comfortable sleeping position, and she needed to take pain medicine for a couple of weeks. However, she had avoided surgeries that would open the chest.

"I did get over the surgery a lot quicker than other people that I've seen," Huff says.

Around the time of her surgeries in the spring of 2011, Huff had begun taking piano lessons. While raising five children, she had always wanted to learn to play. Now, five years after her surgeries and a reassuring PET scan this year, she continues to learn piano and stays active with frequent walks on her family's wooded property in Talbot County, Georgia.


Careful imaging

Although Huff's tumors were discovered before the National Lung Screening Trial's results were announced, her experience illustrates how careful imaging and minimally invasive surgery are changing treatment decisions for patients with early-stage lung cancer.

Careful imaging is needed because suspicious findings on lung CT, by themselves, do not mean a biopsy or surgery is required. "Notice that we call them nodules, not tumors, at the beginning," says William Auffermann, a cardiothoracic radiologist at Winship. "Rather than pull the alarm right away, we take a tiered approach, depending on the size of the nodule and the patient's history."

Some nodules are visible on CT, despite being so small that they are difficult to accurately biopsy. Radiologists describe other lung nodules as having the appearance of ground glass, and they can be tricky to diagnose. Past infections or inflammation can alter lung tissues enough so that they look suspicious, Auffermann says.

He and his colleagues have been using the Lung-RADS system, developed by the American College of Radiology in 2015. Under these guidelines, only if a nodule becomes larger than about eight millimeters on repeated imaging is a PET scan or biopsy called for. Below that size, the guidelines call for follow-up scans in three or six months.

Gold markers in puffy tissues

The majority of lung cancer surgeries are now performed using minimally invasive approaches—above 80 percent at Emory. This presents advantages to the patient: less muscle is cut and recovery is quicker. Traditionally, however, surgeons would need to touch the nodule to find it, and accessing the lung via smaller incisions prevents that.

Remember that the lung tissue is normally filled with air—sort of like a puffy sleeping bag. When someone gets a CT scan and a nodule is detected, the air is present. During surgery, the tissue collapses, causing the nodule to shift away from where it was.

At Winship, cardiothoracic surgeons Manu Sancheti, Seth Force, and colleagues have been developing a technique of using gold markers, called fiducials, to keep track of small nodules. They published their findings in 2014 in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery.

During a CT scan, the radiologist will mark a nodule by inserting a fiducial, which is then visible during the operation via fluoroscopy. This allows the surgeon to precisely cut out the appropriate wedge of lung tissue containing the nodule.

"Some nodules are small enough that it's difficult to feel them at all," Force says. "Rather than take as many as 45 minutes to hunt around for a nodule during surgery, this is an attractive and accurate alternative."

Sometimes, cancer can be diagnosed and removed in one day. Some nodules are located deeper, so that it's harder to access them by needle biopsy first.

A sample from a nodule can be removed during minimally invasive surgery, sent to the pathology lab, and within 30 minutes, the surgeon can have an answer to the question: is it cancer?

"We take out a small piece of lung tissue with a normal border, and put it in a bag so we don't spill any tumor cells," Pickens says. "If necessary, the patient can then have a definitive operation at that time through the small incisions."

If the removed tumor is large enough, doctors will opt for a course of chemotherapy, even if no lymph node spread is detected. The critical measurement is how big the tumor actually is upon removal, rather than via imaging. The dividing line is four centimeters, set by nationwide studies that have examined the benefits of chemotherapy for earlier tumors.

Indiana trial attorney James Stankiewicz recalls having oncologist Fadlo Khuri explain that the tumor that Force had just removed from his lung was just above that threshold.

"We're going to play it on the safe side," he was told.

Like Huff, Stankiewicz also came to his diagnosis by a circuitous route—doctors in Chicago had diagnosed him with tuberculosis, before he asked for a needle biopsy to rule out cancer. When the biopsy came back positive, he came to Winship at the suggestion of a relative.

"Dr. Force was a reassuring voice during a dark, scary time," Stankiewicz says.

Force was able to perform a lobectomy through an incision under one of Stankiewicz's nipples. After surgery, he did experience some pain when moving his arms or twisting, he reports. Still, he was pleased with the results. He recently finished his cisplatin regimen and is scheduled for regular CT scans to continue monitoring his lungs.

"Ten years ago, we would have treated him much differently," Force says. "We would not have given him chemotherapy."

Outcomes research

Ongoing research continues in the lung cancer surgery field on whether open chest surgeries or minimally invasive approaches are best, as well as on the effectiveness of removing an entire lung lobe, versus partial lobe removal.

Emory surgeons Rachel Medbery, Felix Fernandez, and colleagues analyzed nationwide records and found that discovery of cancer in the lymph nodes was more common in open chest surgery (12.8 percent vs 10.3 percent), compared with video-assisted surgery. This suggests that open surgery may give the surgeon an advantage in performing a thorough lymph node inspection, although the difference was less for patients treated in an academic or research facility.

Fernandez is leading a push, supported by a grant in 2014 from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, to compile more thorough information on lung cancer surgery outcomes. He and another leading thoracic surgeon in Florida are overseeing the integration of data compiled by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS), which includes patient-level clinical details, with disease and mortality information from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"Because of the advances in lung screening, there's a consensus that we'll be seeing more patients with early-stage cancer who may be surgical candidates," Fernandez says. "Minimally invasive approaches have a lot to offer, and it's also an opportunity to define what will lead to better long-term outcomes."

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