When Sherry Zorzi first picked up a cigarette as a teenager, she never dreamed that one day she’d be telling people not to smoke.
“Back then, it just seemed like an adult thing to do,” she says. “Most of my friends gave it up after a few years, but I was addicted.”
After her decade-older sister — also a longtime smoker — was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2000, Sherry got scared. “I thought, ‘That’s you in 10 years if you don’t quit now,’” she says. So with her doctor’s help and a prescription for Wellbutrin, Sherry kicked the habit.
Chance encounter leads to clinical trial
Thirteen years later, Sherry passed through a room and overheard a news program that changed her life. It was about a new lung cancer screening program, and she immediately thought, “I need to do that.” The study was for people like Sherry – current and former smokers who’d smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 30 years.
The Baton Rouge resident had her first scan done locally. The doctor saw something suspicious on the film, but it was small enough that he felt comfortable waiting another three months before taking another look.
“My daughter, who worked at MD Anderson at the time, said, ‘No, no, no. If anything’s wrong, you’re coming here,’” Sherry says.
Once at MD Anderson, Sherry entered a clinical trial for early lung cancer detection under Jeremy Erasmus, M.D. She had another scan, and Erasmus saw the same thing on the film. But the spot on Sherry’s lung didn’t seem to have grown, so she remained on the clinical trial for the next few years.
After Sherry’s screening in the fall of 2015, Erasmus decided to take a closer look at the area of concern. He referred her to Stephen Swisher, M.D.
A lung cancer diagnosis
Between November 2015 and February 2016, Sherry had a diagnostic CT scan, a PET scan and a biopsy, which revealed both bad news and good news.
The bad news was that Sherry had lung cancer. The good news was that “it was very small, and we caught it very early,” she says. “Because I had quit smoking in 2000, I also had very good lung function and was an excellent candidate for surgery. By the time the tissue biopsy was complete, Dr. Swisher said the remaining tumor was so small that it was technically not even considered cancer anymore.”
Nevertheless, Sherry chose to have the entire lower lobe of her right lung removed, rather than just the lesion, during a minimally invasive, video-assisted surgery that took place on March 7. One thing that particularly impressed her was how short the recovery period was.
“It was much easier than I was expecting,” Sherry says. “They went in through the back and put a camera in one incision and a drain in another. They didn’t even have to break the ribs, and they had me sitting up in a chair almost immediately afterwards. Everything just went so well. It was amazing.”
The poster child for lung cancer screening
Now, Sherry is urging every smoker she knows to quit — and both current and former smokers to get screened. She also encourages them to consider joining the same lung cancer screening clinical trial she did. Qualified participants have a CT scan, a spirometry test and some blood drawn during each screening. The goal is to identify blood proteins specific to people who eventually develop lung cancer, so that those who don’t have them can avoid unnecessary screening.
“Everyone has to weigh the risks and benefits for themselves, but this seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Sherry says. “I am a huge believer in being proactive. Anything that can help prevent or detect disease early is something people should take advantage of. The sooner it’s caught, the better your prognosis. So I feel like the poster child for both smoking cessation and early detection.”
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