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http://insidebayarea.com/sanmateocounty ... ci_3597357

San Mateo center developing technology to detect disease earlier, save more lives

By Christine Morente, STAFF WRITER

BURLINGAME — Sophie O'Connor smoked one to two packs of cigarettes a day — every day — for 39 years.

Although she quit 20 years ago, doctors found a tumor on the lower lobe of her right lung in its earliest stages — a detection practically unheard of since diagnosis usually occurs too late for doctors to do anything.

But the Burlingame resident said she was lucky after she heard about the unexpected death this past week of Dana Reeve — widow of Christopher Reeve — a victim of lung cancer.

"It was like God just came down and took care of me," O'Connor said. "I probably would be dead now."

She is one of 172 volunteers in the Bay Area who go to San Mateo's Mills Health Center once a year for low-dose spiral CT scans. The technology could potentially be used to screen people at risk for the disease, said Barry Sheppard, head of the center's thoracic surgical oncology department.

The center is part of an international consortium of 40 hospitals working on the Early Lung Cancer Action Project for current and former smokers. Lung cancer is known as the deadliest cancer — deadlier than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined, Sheppard said.

"We're way behind in trying to treat (lung cancer)," he said.

The study was started by Claudia Henschke, a radiologist at Cornell Medical Center. Since the project's inception in the late 1990s, there is now a collection of more than 35,000 CT scans from more than 25,000 patients worldwide, Sheppard said.

"We already know that the CT scan can find lung cancer at the smallest size, at least 3 millimeters in size," he said."

The technology

Chest X-rays and sputum cytology — which checks phlegm under the microscope to find cancer cells — have been available for years. Despite improvements to the technology, they cannot find many lung cancers early enough to improve survival rates, according to the American Cancer Society.

When a patient is diagnosed with lung cancer, the person is already at Stage 3 or Stage 4.

What is different about the low-dose spiral CT scans is that a camera quickly spins around and captures a clear picture of the chest in one breath. Additionally, the machine uses special software and a low dose of radiation, Sheppard said.

However, the test's one flaw is that scars can show up as tumors. It's best suited for people who are at risk for lung cancer, said Kent Adler, president of California Cancer Care.

"It would be wonderful to diagnose those patients early and Dr. Sheppard's study may conceivably at

some point in time be helpful, but it's not there yet," Adler said.

To perform a biopsy could injure or collapse a lung, he said.

"If the technology can get more specific in showing what is cancer and what is not, there's more opportunity for it to be used," Adler said.

The National Cancer Institute is doing a double-blind study of CT Scan to prove its accuracy. Results will be ready in eight years. Until then, only volunteers in the study will be screened, Sheppard said.

The volunteers

Sophie O'Connor and Arlene Sutter both read about the three-year study in a newsletter provided by Mills-Peninsula Services. O'Connor joined the study in October 2003 and was diagnosed with lung cancer soon after. The tumor was removed in January 2004, she said.

Sutter, a Foster City resident, had her first scan in May when she was still a smoker.

"I had no intention of quitting," said Sutter, a smoker for 52 years.

Her first scan found cancer in the lower lobe of her left lung. She quit smoking about six weeks before her surgery in September.

"The (CT scan) apparently is the ticket," Sutter said. "Obviously, the test is not over ... but I'm sure eventually, it will be proven to be the best tool."

Mills Health Center is still looking for more volunteers to fill 228 spots. Volunteers must be older than 55 and a current or former smoker who smoked one to two packs a day for more than 30 years. For more information, call Marie Rinaldi at (650) 696-4479.

Statistics, according to the American Cancer Society:

-In 2006, there will be about 174,470 new cases of lung cancer (92,700 among men and 81,770 among women) and will account for 12 percent of cancer diagnoses.

-The average age of people diagnosed with lung cancer is 70, while fewer than 3 percent of all cases are of people younger than 45.

-In spite of the large number of people diagnosed with this cancer, there are only about 330,000 long-term survivors.

Staff writer Christine Morente covers Burlingame, Millbrae, San Bruno and Hillsborough. She can be reached at (650) 348-4333 or at cmorente@sanmateocountytimes.com.

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