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Lewes Retiree: Lung Cancer Screening Saved My Life

James and Sandy Coyle enjoy quiet time at home.

James Coyle was healthy when, about two years ago, his family doctor suggested that he get tested for lung cancer. Because he didn’t have a cough, fatigue or other typical warning signs, Coyle wasn’t particularly worried about lung cancer.

The scan was quick and painless, and Medicare picked up the entire bill, so Coyle, then 69 years old, figured he’d go for it.

He joined Beebe Healthcare’s lung cancer screening program and received a low-dose CT scan. The scan showed a mass of cells, called a nodule. The small, but likely growing, mass hadn’t yet caused any symptoms, so Coyle had no way to tell it was there.

That scan set off a sequence of events that ended with a diagnosis of stage 1 lung cancer, followed by surgery to remove the tumor. Today, James is cancer free.

If he hadn’t taken his doctor’s advice to get tested, Coyle has no illusions about the course his life would’ve taken.

“I would’ve died of lung cancer,” the now 71-year-old rural Lewes resident said.

Statistics on lung cancer back up that assertion. About 92 percent of people whose lung cancer is caught in the earliest stage survive five years after their diagnosis. However, if lung cancer is caught in its final stage, after it spreads to other parts of the body, only 1 percent survive.

He credits his team at Beebe Healthcare for their persistence, caring and effectiveness, not to mention one other detail.

“They did save my life,” he says matter-of-factly.

 

Picking up a Habit

Coyle developed a three-pack-a-day smoking habit while serving in the Army in Vietnam. When he came home to Jenkintown, Pa., that habit went down to a pack a day. However, the habit continued over his 45-year career as a factory worker making heavy-duty bolts – the kind often used in aviation.

About six years ago, he and his wife, Sandra, moved to the Lewes area in search of peace and quiet — and proximity to quality healthcare.

Then, a few years later, two of his brothers died of lung cancer a year apart. Even so, he was healthy and didn’t see much of a reason for alarm.

Beebe’s lung cancer screening program is designed for people just like Coyle — those who are at risk for lung cancer but who have no symptoms.

Those who fit the following criteria should get tested:

  • 55 to 77 years old
  • Have smoked at least a pack a day for 30 years (or the equivalent, such as 15 years of two packs a day)
  • Are either smoking or have quit within the last 15 years

Low-income residents who do not have health insurance may be eligible for free screenings through a state program called Screening for Life. Lung cancer screenings are also available to anyone for $99.

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer, which kills more Americans than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. However, it is important to note that up to 20 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.

Even after it nearly killed him, smoking was not easy for Coyle to give up. His two sons smoke, and being around them would trigger cravings. His wife, Sandy, encouraged him and he eventually kicked the habit.

 

Benign, Really?

The first test on his tumor found that it was benign, or non-cancerous. It was a relief to him, but Beebe oncologic surgeon, James Spellman, MD, wasn’t convinced.

Dr. Spellman knew these tests can sometimes return what’s called a “false negative,” meaning it gives the all-clear even when cancer is present. Dr. Spellman suspected this was one of those times, and he was right.

“Dr. Spellman was great,” Coyle says.

A follow-up test confirmed that early-stage cancer was indeed present, and Coyle underwent surgery to remove the tumor at Beebe’s medical center in Lewes. He knows the cancer could come back, so he returns to Tunnell Cancer Center in Rehoboth for periodic follow-up blood tests.

 

Bugging the Grandkids

For Coyle, a saved life means volunteering with the Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park, vacations to Florida and, best of all, keeping up with his four grandkids. On one Saturday this spring, that meant a morning soccer game followed by an afternoon soccer game, followed by a dance recital.

His advice to those who’re considering similar scans is simple: Take your doctor’s advice and get tested.

“I’m just lucky to be here,” he said. His wife agreed, “After 45 years of marriage, I am glad we have more time together,” Sandy said. “I can’t stress enough the importance of preventive medicine. Get the test. Even if you are sure it is clear – still get the test done.”

And, her most important advice: “Quit smoking. You’ve got to do it. It impacts your body so much. It’s just not worth it,” she said.  

Beebe Healthcare is planning for the next generation of care and is excited to break ground on a new South Coastal Health Campus near Millville. The new campus will include a second location for Beebe’s award-winning cancer center and a freestanding emergency department. To find out more about Beebe’s plans, go to www.nextgenerationofcare.org.

If you’re interested in having a health screening but not sure where to start, Cancer Screening Nurse Navigator Deb Campbell can help. Call her at (302) 645-3169.