Wellness & Education

“Spur of the Moment” Decision Saves Life

This article first appeared in the Rushville Republican on Tuesday, January 8, 2018. 

It was a hot day in August, 2017, when Debbie Priddy, a housekeeper at Rush Memorial Hospital, looked out the window to check the temperature on the hospital’s digital sign. She doesn’t remember what the temperature was that day but she does remember the ad for a $59 CT heart scan. It was an ad that saved her life.

Encouraged by the nurses in her department, Debbie, a former smoker, decided to get a CT heart scan that afternoon. She chose the heart scan instead of the lung scan because it did not require a physician’s referral. The next day Debbie learned that a spot had been found on one of her lungs. The heart scan is not intended to scan the lungs, but part of the lungs appear at the top of the scan. This is where the spot was located. A follow up CT lung scan confirmed the presence of more spots in the same lung.

While waiting for further test results, Debbie attended a fundraising and survivor recognition event benefiting the Brian’s Cause Cancer Treatment Relief Fund of the Rush Memorial Hospital Foundation. As she watched the recognition ceremony for cancer survivors, she wondered if she would one day be among them. On September 1, 2017, Debbie learned that she had small cell lung cancer.

Small cell lung cancer is a type of cancer that spreads quickly. The doctors were not sure whether or not Debbie’s cancer had spread. Two lumps on her neck were of particular concern. Debbie was told that she would need a biopsy in order to determine if the lumps were cancerous. A biopsy is a simple procedure in which tissue is taken from the body and examined to determine the presence or extent of a disease.

The news was frightening but Debbie said she was encouraged by her oncologist, Dr Jaime Ayon, of the Sheehan Cancer Center.

“Dr Ayon is an amazing person. When he talks to you it’s like he really talks from his heart. He said, “Debbie, we’re going to beat this.” Debbie believed him.

Fortunately, Debbie’s biopsy revealed that the lumps on her neck were cancer free. This was a very positive sign.

Debbie only has one regret about her biopsy. She says, “When we did the lung biopsy I had to go to Shelbyville. If it ever happened again I’d want to have it done here, which wasn’t possible then. You feel comfortable in our home town. This is where I live. Everything that I have had done here I felt comfortable.”

Since Debbie’s biopsy, things have changed at Rush Memorial Hospital. Thanks to the purchase of new imaging equipment and a new radiologist, Dr Jon Hopkins, if she were to need the same service today, Debbie could have her biopsy done at RMH.

On November 22, 2017, Debbie had surgery to remove one half of one lung. Because her cancer had been diagnosed at such an early stage, she did not have to endure radiation or chemotherapy. Debbie was back at work in only three weeks. She was happy to be back. Debbie feels that remaining active was part of her recovery. She says, “I stayed at work. I didn’t want to take the time to dwell on it.”

During Debbie’s cancer journey, she had one special friend who accompanied her through every step. Gretchen Smith drove Debbie to her doctor’s appointments, sat beside her before her biopsy and accompanied her to her lung surgery. “No one should have to travel this road alone,” said Gretchen.

After Debbie’s surgery, Gretchen called every morning to check up on her. She stopped by with donuts, juice or lunch. They developed a friendship that is very precious to both of them. Speaking of Gretchen, Debbie says, “She is my hero. She impresses me every day. She was with me from the beginning until this very day.”

Debbie has had regular checkups since her lung surgery. So far everything has been clear. She knows that there is a possibility that her cancer could return. With Gretchen, Dr Ayon and the staff of the Sheehan Cancer Center by her side, however, she feels that she is ready for whatever the future holds. She says, “I beat this. I’m here. It if happens again, I’m going to beat it again. I have too many good people standing behind me.”

Unfortunately, lung cancer screening rates are extremely low. In the Midwest only 1.9% of the people who need lung cancer screenings actually get them. In comparison, according to the National Institute of Health, in 2017, 72.5 % of eligible Indiana women had had a mammogram within the last two years. The screening rate for colon cancer, among the qualified population in Indiana, was 62.5 % in 2014, according to the American Cancer Society.

The low rate of lung cancer screenings is one of the reasons that the 5-year survival rate (the percentage of lung cancer patients who are alive 5 years after diagnosis) is so low in comparison with the 5-year survival rates for breast and colon cancer. With fewer screenings, more patients are diagnosed at a later stage. The later the diagnosis, the less likely the chance for successful treatment.

Thanks to a hot day in August and a $59 CT heart scan, Debbie Priddy is very passionate about the need for more people to have their lungs (and hearts) scanned. She wishes that everyone would get the screenings they need. “Your lungs are so special,” Debbie says, “People just don’t understand that it’s so important to have screenings done.”