Living Cancer-Free

Expert Team + Advanced Technology = Positive Outcome for Lung Cancer Patient

Lung cancer is the nation’s leading cause of cancer-related death. Catherine Widhalm, a recent “Tennessee transplant,” knew lung cancer ran in her family, and that she had a higher risk of developing it herself. After a nodule on her lung turned out to be cancerous, Widhalm had curative surgery at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center and is now living cancer-free.

Knowing the Risk Factors

Last year, Widhalm asked her primary care provider to perform a CT scan of the chest for lung cancer screening. The images revealed a small nodule at the very apex of the left upper lobe of her lung. “I had a history of smoking, and both my brother and father had lung cancer, so I knew I was at risk,” she says.

Widhalm was referred to Varun Shah, MD, a fellowship-trained, board-certified interventional pulmonologist at Fort Sanders Regional. He performed a robotic biopsy of the lung nodule, which was suspicious for early-stage lung cancer.

”In the past this [biopsy] would not have been possible, but with the robotic bronchoscopy platform, we are able to get smaller nodules farther out in the lung with far lesser complications,” Dr. Shah says.

Dr. Shah consulted with David B. Graham, MD, FACS, a fellowship-trained, board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon at Fort Sanders Regional. Together, the two physicians champion the
hospital’s lung program.

“The lung program at Fort Sanders Regional is designed to address all aspects of lung cancer care,” Dr. Graham says. “Our robotic-assisted lung nodule biopsy platform complements our robotic-assisted lung surgery capabilities very nicely, allowing less invasive and more robust treatments for our lung cancer patients.”

Lung Cancer Surgery at Fort Sanders Regional

After more diagnostic testing, Widhalm learned she would need surgery to remove a portion of her lung where the mass of cells was detected.

“They told me all of my options, including surgery,” Widhalm says. “It was frightening to think about, taking part of your lung. But I knew it was the best option.”

Dr. Graham performed robotic-assisted surgery to remove the left upper lobe of Widhalm’s lung in March 2022. He removed several lymph nodes around the lung to assess for cancer spread. The procedure required only five small incisions.

Widhalm stayed several days at Fort Sanders Regional to recover. “All the nurses were wonderful,” she says. “Dr. Graham’s physician assistants especially took care of me.”

After surgery the mass in Widhalm’s lung was confirmed to be cancerous, but there was no cancer in the surrounding tissue. “Later, they did some genetic testing to determine the likelihood of it returning. I had a very low chance, so no other treatment was needed. I’m very thankful I didn’t need anything else,” she says.

Widhalm now sees Dr. Graham every six months for a follow-up appointment and CT scan to ensure there is no new growth.

“Both mentally and physically, it was a lot more difficult than I anticipated,” says Widhalm, who had never undergone major surgery before. “I am very appreciative of Dr. Graham; he’s a great doctor. He has a good bedside manner, and he didn’t send me home until he was confident that I was ready.”

A Collaborative Approach

Dr. Shah and Dr. Graham sit on a multidisciplinary thoracic “tumor board,” composed of a team of specialists who analyze each patient’s case, carefully providing individualized recommendations based on current cancer care guidelines and evidence-based medicine.

The team includes specialists from radiology, pulmonology, thoracic surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, pathology, cancer nurse navigators, cancer research specialists, genetic counselors and support staff.

Dr. Graham explains, “Patients directly benefit from the tumor board by having these experts review each case in such great detail, having an open discussion of findings and treatment options, and streamlining additional needed workup.”

Technology Enhances Treatment

“Having robotic lung biopsy technology at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center gives our team the opportunity to sample these nodules quicker and easier than before,” Dr. Graham explains.

“There are less complications with this robotic technology than traditional methods, and it allows sampling of tissue in most areas of the lung, including those that are hard to reach. Lymph node sampling is also performed at the same time, which speeds up the time from diagnosis to treatment.

“Fort Sanders Regional has recognized the need for this technology in our community and is leading the way toward a comprehensive lung cancer program,” he says.

Looking Ahead

Widhalm slowly continues to heal. “I walk a two mile route in my neighborhood, and I sometimes get winded so I just have to pace myself,” she says. “Otherwise, I feel my health has returned to normal.

“It was definitely an emotional experience to find out you have cancer,” Widhalm says. “I’m blessed to have such a positive prognosis. I’m grateful for the options available, and having everything available locally makes it so much easier.”

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