Many people diagnosed with cancer ask “why me?” Kathy Leiser asks herself “what if?”
What if she hadn’t moved from Texas to Nashville to be closer to her two grown sons in 2009? What if she hadn’t heard that public service announcement about a Vanderbilt clinical trial looking for former smokers when she was headed to work that day? What if she, who spent most of her life caring for her family and let her own health care needs lapse, hadn’t picked up the phone to join the study?
She believes her guardian angels were looking out for her.
Leiser enrolled in the Nashville Lung Cancer Screening Trial with Pierre Massion, M.D., in 2011 to determine whether testing current and former smokers with a combination of bronchoscopy, CT scan, chest X-ray and pulmonary testing would result in the early detection of lung cancer.
“I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me,” said Leiser, a 63-year-old former smoker. “I had some shortness of breath but I wasn’t worried. As smokers, we are aware of the consequences of our actions. I just thought getting all those tests, and for free, was a good idea.”
Three days after testing, Massion called to say they found something and asked Leiser to come back in.
“I didn’t think it was going to be anything bad, bad. I don’t know why but I just didn’t,” said Leiser. “I took my son, Matt, with me because I knew he would remember things that I didn’t. Dr. Massion showed us my CT scan and up at the top of my right lung, there was a white spot.”
The spot was relatively small, only 2.8 centimeters, but Massion said he was 95 percent sure it was malignant. Next came a PET scan to determine if cancer was present anywhere else in her body, and the result was negative. After a consultation with thoracic surgeon Eric Grogan, M.D., MPH, Leiser underwent surgery to remove the Stage I nodule and the upper lobe of her right lung.
Four days later, she was released from the hospital and spent two tough months recovering at home, with her sons taking shifts to make sure their mother had round-the-clock care.
Today Leiser is cancer free, but she stops short of calling herself a cancer survivor.
“I got off easy, easy, easy compared to people that have to go through chemotherapy and radiation. Trying to hold onto a job while undergoing chemotherapy, now that’s a cancer survivor. I’m just someone who had surgery,” said Leiser.
Leiser takes ownership for her years of smoking, but cautions that smoking should not be used to stigmatize individuals and prevent them from seeking care. Smoking is not the only unhealthy behavior people engage in and lung cancer in never-smokers is still the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths in the country.
“I had a chest X-ray the year before my diagnosis, and no one saw anything,” said Leiser. “Without a CT scan, they never would have found it. That’s why I hope that a CT scan will become the standard of care, much like mammograms are for breast cancer and colonoscopies are for colon cancer.”