Breathe easier — advanced lung cancer screening and care are close to home
November 11, 2020
Mary Jo Thelander’s parents helped establish Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH) as part of the initial fundraising effort to open the hospital in Arlington Heights. Thelander says she can walk through the hallways and point out where the original building is and each additional expansion is located. NCH is her hospital.
She might look familiar to you. She’s been a part of the Roman Catholic ministry at NCH for many years, visiting inpatients, providing comfort, cheer and prayers as needed. Since she is retired, she’s spent a lot of time at NCH, except when volunteers were furloughed during the initial COVID-19 pandemic.
A Mount Prospect resident since 1986, Thelander has depended on NCH medical staff for her healthcare needs for more than 25 years. Her most serious need was in June 2016. “It was that summer that I started coughing up phlegm, which was normal for me since I was a former smoker, but this time the consistency noticeably changed. After about six weeks of watching it, I decided I should see a doctor.”
Thelander knew she had a higher than average risk for lung cancer because of her 35 years of smoking and from working in places like metal scrap yards and other unhealthy environments. Thelander even spent time volunteering at Indy Car races and spending time with chemicals under the race cars. Ena Hennegan, D.O., an NCH Medical Group primary care physician, decided to order a CT scan of her lungs.
After the results came back, her doctor sent her to a pulmonologist who told her the results were very suspect and most likely a fast-moving lung cancer. Her case was shared with the NCH Lung Tumor Board that puts the best minds together to consult on cases like hers. She was promptly sent for robotic surgery to remove part of her lung, using the advanced da Vinci® Surgical System. “It was pretty easy. I felt like my care team kept me completely informed on everything and it put me at ease. I was in the hospital for only about a day and a half.”
A benefit to having robotic surgery is the process is much less invasive than open surgery, which then typically results in less recovery time and faster healing.
Thelander continues, “I don’t recall any complications or side effects from the procedure. Healing wasn’t too bad, and I had very little pain. The whole recovery time was between four to eight weeks.”
“Fortunately, my diagnosis was stage IA, so no additional treatment (like chemotherapy) was needed.”
Juli Aistars, APRN, TTS, a Lung Patient Navigator at NCH, notes, “It’s important for people who are at high risk for lung cancer, like smokers, to come in early for lung cancer screening when they don’t have any symptoms. And the reason is because we want to diagnose it as early as possible. When it is most treatable as in Mary Jo’s case, she only had to have surgery because it was caught so early.”
Today, Thelander is “feeling good. Granted, my breathing isn’t 100 percent from all of the years of smoking, but I am healthy. I’m able to travel internationally, which is important to me. I lead a pretty full life, sometimes I just need to take my time.”
She has strong, but simple advice for others who may be as risk for lung cancer. “First of all, you really need to know your own body. Pay attention to the little things. If you think there is a chance you could be at risk, get the baseline CT scan and screening. If my doctor hadn’t ordered the CT scan, we probably wouldn’t have found my cancer so early.”
For more than 40 years, the American Cancer Society has hosted the Great American Smokeout (GASO) on the third Thursday of November (this year November 18). GASO is an opportunity for people who smoke to commit to healthy, smoke-free lives – not just for a day, but year-round. GASO also provides an opportunity for individuals, community groups, businesses, healthcare providers and others to encourage people to use the date to make a plan to quit, or plan in advance and initiate a smoking cessation plan on the day of the event. The GASO event helps people learn about the many tools they can use to help them quit and stay quit.
Mary Jo Thelander was gracious enough to share her quit story. “I started smoking when I was 15 – back then everyone smoked, including my family members. When I was 55, I finally quit. One of my doctors finally convinced me it was time to quit. He was great, he told me the opportunity to quit would present itself. It did in the form of weekend retreat.”