Catching Lung Cancer Early

October 30, 2020

Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the surge of COVID-19, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.

It was by chance that Diana Robertson Fidanzato had a chest X-ray in December 2017. After falling and hitting her head in the middle of the night, she ended up in the Emergency Department, where a chest X-ray was taken as part of flu season protocol. That was how doctors first discovered a small nodule in the upper right lobe of her lung—just two weeks before her daughter’s wedding.

Diana, 59, a resident of Brick, New Jersey, followed up with her primary care doctor, Kelly G. Ussery-Kronhaus, M.D., for another chest X-ray and low-dose computerized tomography (CT) scan shortly thereafter. Diana was a former smoker, but because of the small size of the nodule, they decided to simply monitor it. She had a repeat CT scan in December 2018 that showed little change.

So the mom of four adult children continued to lead a normal life, working as a quality analyst for a large insurance provider, and volunteering once a week at a local nonprofit that supports women being treated for cancer. “I love to help people,” Diana says. “As an empty nester, I was looking for something to do. I heard about this organization and thought it was an awesome concept—that women with cancer could go there free of charge to relax and heal. I love helping them with anything they need and being there to listen.”

In December 2019, another CT scan showed the nodule on Diana’s lung had grown. She found herself in need of help for a change. Dr. Ussery-Kronhaus referred her to thoracic surgeon Thomas Bauer, M.D., FACS, MBA, chair of the Department of Surgery and medical director of thoracic surgery at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Jersey Shore is the first in New Jersey to earn The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval® for Lung Cancer Certification, an accreditation for excellence in lung cancer treatment. After consulting with Dr. Bauer in January, Diana had surgery to remove the nodule on February 13, 2020.

An Early Diagnosis

Diana, who lost a close friend to lung cancer a few years ago, feels fortunate that her cancer was caught at stage 1 and that she was able to have surgery right away. “Because my friend wasn’t having any symptoms right away, she wasn’t diagnosed until stage 4, which was when she started feeling ill and went to the doctor. What I’ve learned from my whole experience is you often don’t have symptoms until later stages [of lung cancer], and there’s not as much they can do to treat you then,” she says.

Echoes Dr. Bauer: “The earlier you catch lung cancer with screening, the greater the probability is of a good outcome. I ask my patients, ‘If you’re going to be unfortunate enough to get lung cancer, do you want an 80 percent chance of a cure if you participate in the lung cancer screening program or a 23 percent chance of a cure if you don’t?’ That difference is so profound that it’s a pretty easy answer.”

Dr. Bauer notes that Diana’s screening journey in particular shows the importance of careful follow-up and monitoring. “If we operated on everything we found on a CT scan, we would be doing a lot of unnecessary surgery,” he says. “Carefully monitoring the finding over time, then being able to discern when to operate, is an important part of making sure you’re not harming patients.”

Compassionate Care

Looking back, Diana says the care she received at Jersey Shore was nothing short of incredible. “Everyone on Dr. Bauer’s team was amazing. They are truly compassionate people,” she says. “You can call any one of them and get immediate feedback.”

Specifically, Diana recalls getting cold feet a few days before her scheduled surgery, and someone on the care team spoke with her on the phone for about 20 minutes to reassure her that she was doing the right thing. “She explained everything to me again and talked about all the benefits of having the surgery now versus later,” Diana says. “It really helped me.”

One of the most heartwarming parts of Diana’s entire experience is the story behind the cough pillow she received from Dr. Bauer just before her surgery. Meant as a little something to hold and squeeze to reduce pain when coughing post-surgery, Diana’s cough pillow—navy blue with stars all over—was handmade by Dr. Bauer’s daughter. “That meant a lot to me,” she says.

Diana also was impressed with the care she received in the hospital after surgery. “My nurse was amazing,” she says. “He took me down when I got discharged and stayed with me so my sister could get the car. He spent a lot of time in my room, made me feel comfortable, answered all of my questions and told me I was doing a great job. I really felt like I was treated like an individual, not just another post-op patient.”

The Road Ahead

Now a few months post-surgery, Diana says she feels even better than she did before her surgery. “Living in this area, I love everything about shore life: the beach and the ocean,” she says. “That’s where I get my energy.”

Every day, Diana embraces the ocean air and takes 3- to 4-mile walks with her hearing-impaired dog with posttraumatic stress disorder, Savannah, whom she rescued in December 2019. “I wear hearing aids because I can’t function without them. So when I was looking to adopt a dog and found out there was one en route from South Carolina who was hearing impaired, I knew I had to meet her,” she says.

With her first two grandchildren born this summer, Diana has plenty to look forward to in addition to her daily walks. “I feel like I’m being given a second chance, and I want to make the most of it,” she says.

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