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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘If you find this early, you can win’: Doctors hope patients take advantage of Providence technology for early lung cancer detection

Providence Northwest Heart & Lung thoracic surgeon Dr. Alexi Matousek, left, and Providence Pulmonary interventional pulmonologist Dr. Jiten Patel explain the Ion Robotic Bronchoscopy System, an advanced robot-assisted surgical technology that enables early detection of lung cancer, during a demonstration Monday at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A new robot-assisted surgical tool allows Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center to detect and treat lung cancer earlier than ever before. The doctors using the cutting-edge technology hope its existence will encourage patients to get a lifesaving screening.

“The overall survival for lung cancer is bad. But that is because we only find out about the cancer when the patient is already in stage 3 or 4,” said Providence heart and lung surgeon Dr. Alexi Matousek. “All we have to do to win in lung cancer is find it early.”

According to a 2022 American Lung Association report, someone diagnosed with lung cancer has a 25% survival rate over the next five years. According to Matousek, it doesn’t have to be that way if more people get screened.

“If you don’t get screened for lung cancer, you won’t feel anything. You will just cough up blood. There are no nerves in the lungs. There is nothing to tell you that you have a problem until it is too late,” he said.

National cancer screening guidelines indicate someone should get screened if they meet these three guidelines:

  • Between 50 and 80 years old.
  • A current smoker or quit within the last 15 years.
  • Have a 20 -pack-per-year smoking history. This means smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years and so on.

Matousek also noted those with significant secondhand exposure to cigarettes should consider getting screened.

“A secondhand smoker is even more exposed than a smoker because they’re not behind the filter. The smokers have a filter in the cigarette. The secondhand smoker sitting next to him is just breathing campfire,” he said.

According to the same 2022 report, only 6.8% of those fitting these criteria are screened each year nationally. A big reason people don’t get screened is because of shame, Matousek said.

“Unlike many other cancers, there is a lot of stigma associated with lung cancer,” he said. “People either think they deserve it or there’s no hope. We’re trying to say no – they don’t deserve it. This is an addictive chemical and addictive pattern very hard to break free from. And there is hope if you get in early.”

Previous limitations of screenings

Sacred Heart’s new technology makes this screening more effective.

If the shadow of lung cancer is caught early enough, doctors may not be able to treat a lesion until it grows big enough to biopsy.

Providence pulmonologist Dr. Jiten Patel likened a lung to a hollow tree that has a trunk that branches out in many directions. The beginnings of lung cancer often begin to grow in the smallest and hardest to reach branches of the lung. Previous technology allowed doctors to get close enough to a lesion to be suspicious of it but not so close to diagnose.

“We thought these legions were cancer. They smelled like cancer. But we couldn’t necessarily biopsy them,” Patel said. The options when this happened were either to surgically remove the potentially benign legion in a surgery with risks or to wait to see if the legion grows larger.

After waiting six months or more than a year, the cancer could have grown into something much more serious.

Ion Robotic System

Funded through a million-dollar investment by the Providence Inland Northwest Foundation, the Ion Robotic Bronchoscopy System allows a surgeon to travel into these farthest reaches to biopsy and actually test a suspicious legion.

The technology is shape-sensing, meaning it will hold its shape as the patient breathes. It is also smaller than previous methods of biopsy.

“Because the robot can hold its position in space, the patient can breathe, the catheter will move and it comes right back to where it was,” Matousek said.

Previous technology could only reach into crevices of the lung three-quarters of an inch wide or larger. This new device can reach areas as small as 6 millimeters, or the width of the inside of a pen.

In two weeks of using the technology, Patel has been “absolutely blown away” by how far the device can go into a lung. One patient had a cancerous tumor Patel “would not have even attempted” to biopsy in the past. Now, the patient will undergo a minimally invasive surgery removing the cancerous legion and go back to living their life.

“We never would have done surgery on this person before. And because it is a stage 1 cancer, she is going to be fine, where before we would have to wait and watch for potentially years while the tumor grows,” Matousek said.

But these gains in technology will not have a big impact if those eligible for lung cancer screenings do not get them until it is too late, the doctors added.

“No one deserves lung cancer,” Patel said. “It is about getting through that fear and that sense of vulnerability to ask for help.”