Stefan Walczak, 74, has experienced his fair share of journeys as a volunteer train driver in Yuba City, Calif., about 40 miles north of Sacramento. But nothing could prepare him for the “ride of a lifetime” his seventh decade would bring.
Walczak, a former smoker and prostate cancer survivor, sought medical care in 2021 after his voice suddenly changed. “I was shocked when ear, nose and throat doctor performed a throat swab and days later told me I had Stage 1 throat cancer,” he says.
But the diagnosis was only the first set of unexpected news shared with Walczak: a chest CT after eight weeks of radiation treatment to kill cancerous cells in his throat revealed a small “spot” or nodule on his right lung. When a biopsy showed the lung nodule was cancerous, his care team recommended it be surgically removed, immediately.
Now, Walczak is cancer free and looking forward to Thanksgiving with his family. “You can’t imagine the depths of my relief and gratitude when regular chest X-rays confirm I’m healthy and I beat this cancer. I’m so thankful for the lung screening at Sutter that caught the cancer early!”
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among men and women—comprising nearly 25% of all cancer deaths.
National organizations including the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Chest Physicians recommend yearly low-dose, computed tomography (CT) lung cancer screenings for individuals who meet these criteria: people 50-80 years old who smoke or who have quit smoking in the last 15 years.
As Walczak now knows, catching cancer early can help ensure successful treatment.
“Screenings with low-dose CT scans are an important first line of defense and a way to detect early lung cancer before it spreads and becomes harder to treat – especially for individuals at increased risk,” says Dr. Jason Wiesner, a radiologist and medical director for Sutter Health’s diagnostic imaging service line in Sacramento.
He notes Sutter Health has established a new program to help identify patients at risk for lung cancer sooner. As part of the initiative, multidisciplinary care teams help doctors identify individuals with suspicious lung nodules earlier, broaden access to low-dose CT screenings for those eligible and offer smoking cessation support to people who use tobacco. All to help patients get needed care and treatment faster, helping improve overall health outcomes and chances of survival.
“Early-stage lung cancers can be highly curable,” said Dr. Stephen Maxwell, a thoracic surgeon at Sutter Roseville Medical Center. “With new and expanded approaches to screening, we can help catch lung cancers as early as possible, bringing patients a greater chance to live cancer free.”
For individuals like Walczak, early screening has made all the difference.