Early detection helps woman conquer lung cancer.
By Susan Skog and Kim Vecchio
When Loveland resident Dona Ammons developed a pain near her ribs she figured it was a result of her osteoporosis. Assuming she had a bruised or broken rib, she went to her doctor to get it checked out.
“On April 1, I went to see an orthopedic doctor, who took an X-ray,” said Ammons. “He confirmed I didn’t have anything wrong with my ribs, but he said, ‘I see something in the X-ray that bothers me.’”
After a chest X-ray and CT scan, Ammons visited with University of Colorado Health pulmonologist, Dr. Richard Milchak. He showed Ammons the mass on her lung. He ordered a biopsy and three days later, took Ammons’ case to UCHealth’s newly created Lung Nodule Clinic in northern Colorado. That’s when the cogs were set in motion for Ammons’ treatment plan with her team.
On April 26, after meeting with a team consisting of radiologists and pathologists, as well as pulmonologists, medical and radiation oncologists, surgeons and patient navigators, Milchak called Ammons to tell her she needed additional testing.
“With the advent of the Lung Nodule Clinic, we may see a patient on Wednesday and hopefully get him into a diagnostic procedure within a few days to a week,” Milchak said. “Then, a diagnosis can be more quickly reached and a treatment plan in place within weeks, not months. That time is valuable when you’re treating lung cancer.”
Early detection an important piece
UCHealth is on the frontlines of one of the most urgent, cancer-fighting pursuits in the country: the drive for early detection and better treatment of lung cancer.
Though rates are dropping, lung cancer is still the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. It causes more deaths than the next three most common cancers combined: colon, breast and pancreatic. About 159,260 Americans will die from lung cancer this year, the association estimates.
Part of the problem is that the majority of lung cancer diagnoses are made too late, said Dr. Matthew Sorensen, medical director of UCHealth’s oncology service line in northern Colorado.
But Sorensen’s team is working hard to reverse that trend and boost survival rates through the Lung Nodule Clinic. For the first time in northern Colorado, patients benefit from a more efficient approach to detecting and treating lung cancer.
“The lack of communication among providers is one of the biggest complaints patients and their families have,” Sorensen said. “There is nothing more frustrating than having two contradictory opinions given to patients at two successive appointments. Now, after I sit down with a patient and their family, and shake their hands as I leave the room to put their treatment plan into place, they don’t need to ask, ‘Are you sure you’ve talked to my surgeon or my radiation oncologist?’ They know we’re all on board, and we’re all aware of the treatment plan.”
A new tattoo
Ammons, who was diagnosed with Stage 1B lung cancer in April, said the clinic was key to her beating cancer. The day after she spoke with Milchak, the Lung Nodule Clinic’s patient navigator, Ladelle West, called Ammons to help schedule her appointments in the right order, coordinate communication among all providers and stay on top of each step of her treatment plan.
West is like the conductor of a sophisticated symphony, weaving together all the medical notes. Milchak calls West “the most important person in this process.” And Dr. Kirk DePriest, UCHealth pulmonologist added, “like the quarterback to our entire team.”
“Ladelle was very helpful. She handled everything for me,” Ammons said. “She set up all of my appointments and kept me informed. I never had to worry if the physicians were talking to each other because they were constantly communicating and everyone was on the same page. It moved along smoothly.”
Ammons added, “I am a busy lady caring for my dogs, Mr. Beau Jangles and Bambi. I’m also the choir director at my church, I belong to a train club and I play in a ukulele band. Ladelle and my team handled everything so I could go on living.”
By May 7, Ammons had completed her tests and was scheduled to see Dr. Ann Stroh, UCHealth medical oncologist, who coordinated radiation treatments with UCHealth radiation oncologist Dr. Gwen Lisella. On May 20, Ammons was mapped for her five radiation treatments and on May 29, she had a trial run before beginning her treatments.
“I didn’t know what mapping meant except that I’d get a tattoo,” said a smiling Ammons. “At 76 years, I was going to get my first tattoo. Turns out, they were outlining the treatment area, and the tattoos were small dots to line me up with the machine to make sure I was receiving radiation where I needed it.”
As of June 11, Ammons is cancer-free, two and half months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
On Ammons’ last day of treatment, the radiation staff gave her a little white cake with a candle that said “happy day.” However, her last day of treatment won’t be the last day she sees her team. Ammons has multiple follow-up visits scheduled with Milchak, Stroh and her primary care doctor. She will also have a PET scan every three months to make sure the cancer does not return.
“Nobody is letting loose of me,” she said. “Makes me feel so secure that they are following up and taking care of me. They weren’t going to drop off at the end when I finished my treatments.”
It’s that kind of over-the-top support, collaboration and excellence that fires Sorensen up to strive to make the Lung Nodule Clinic at the new Cancer Center one of the best in the nation.
“It’s been so rewarding for me to see the most talented cancer care providers I’ve ever seen come together for the complete care of patients,” he said.
Ammons’ team consisted of doctors who bring their expertise to the table to develop the best treatment plan for each patient after discussing everything from the patient’s risk factors to the top drug, clinical trial, surgical and radiation options. In addition to radiologists and pathologists, the team includes pulmonologists, medical and radiation oncologists, surgeons and patient navigators.