I have to admit that when I woke up on Nov. 7, the day I was scheduled to have a Spiral CT (Computed Tomography) scan for lung cancer, my first thought was thoroughly melodramatic: Will I ever again begin my day free of any concerns about a serious health issue? I was lucky enough to never have been seriously ill, but the scan, I knew, was merciless. If I had a cancerous lesion or nodule tinier than a grain of rice, if I had evidence of emphysema, it would be right there on the screen in front of me. A specialist who knew what she was talking about would give me the bad news.
That specialist was Dr. Claudia Henschke of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. She co-authored the report on early CT scans for high-risk smokers and ex-smokers. I certainly qualified -- 40 years of a pack of unfiltered Camels a day, but it took me 14 months after quitting smoking to decide to get tested. Without question I was afraid of what I might learn; and, too, I felt so good! Still strong, no symptoms at all of any lung issues. I could play hard, fast tennis against young guys, walk 36 holes on various golf courses, single-hand my 14-ton boat in heavy weather. But as the months went on, even though I wasn't tempted to smoke, the questions wouldn't go away: Had my decades of smoking set a time bomb in my chest? Had it already been ignited? Should I take the one test that could at least answer that last question?
Then, in late October, I watched a report by our Chief Science Correspondent Robert Bazell, whose office is a few steps from mine. It was about the publication in the New England Journal of Medicine of Dr. Henschke's study of 31,000 patients worldwide who'd been given spiral CT scans. Dr. Henschke's conclusions were intuitive, logical and borne out by her numbers. Of the 484 cancers found by the screening, eight patients declined treatment and subsequently died. Of the rest, with their cancerous lesions found early, 88% survived with a projected 10-year survival rate. I read those numbers, then read them again: I knew from prior research that the 5-year survival rate for those diagnosed with lung cancer without early scanning was only 15%. Dr. Henschke claimed that if the screening were available to all high-risk smokers and ex-smokers, fully 80% of the 160,000 lung cancer deaths each year could be prevented. Others in her field dispute that, and call the estimate "unbelievable" and "outrageous" because her study did not include a non-scanned control group as does another study due to be completed in 2010.
2010? I wanted some answers now, wanted to take charge of this aspect of my personal health now! Dr. Henschke said that's exactly what I would be doing. And it would only take a few minutes. That did it. I booked the next available appointment.
You put the stupid gown on, and of course you're nervous. If you're lucky as I was, your spouse shows up for support. You're in the machine, listening to a recorded voice tell you when to breathe in, hold your breath, breathe out... and in less than a few minutes, as promised, it's done. You were sweating before, overheated -- now it's chilly and you're shivering. You're even more nervous, because in the next room images of your lungs, nearly 300 ultra thin slices, are being downloaded into Dr. Henschke's computer so she can sit you down and tell you the facts you asked her to find. It only takes minutes, but the minutes feel like hours.
You sit in a chair, next to hers, both of you facing the screen. She turns to you and says:
Dr. Henschke: First of all, you're fine.
Me: I'm fine.
Henschke: You're fine.
Me: Completely fine?
Henschke: You're completely fine. Nothing to worry about, OK? But we want to see you again next year, because you just stopped smoking a year ago and you really remain at high risk for lung cancer. But I'm going to go through all the different parts. First of all...
Me: Can you say that again? I'm fine?
Henschke: You're fine, OK? You're fine.
Me: All right.
Of course I was happy. I'd learned I didn't have lung cancer, not a hint of it... yet. And no evidence of emphysema... yet. Or coronary artery plaque... yet. And that's all I learned for certain. What I had was a baseline, a first scan to be used as a basis of comparison for the future scans that would be part of my annual physical.
Because I smoked, for 40 years. Because that means I'm 20 times more likely to get lung cancer than a male non-smoker. I wanted to know my current status, and now I do. And because I work for NBC News, I decided to bring a camera crew and producer Clare Duffy along, so the viewers of Nightly News with Brian Williams and the Today Show could know what I know, and why I felt it was important and useful information. For 45 million American smokers and their families; and for the millions of ex-smokers who are now in the majority of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients.
Ex-smokers like me.
Editor's note: Mike also shared with us the story behind why he quit smoking. You can read that here.