Lung cancer screening finds cancer early when chance of cure is high

Thoracic surgeon Jessica Donington, MD, and lung cancer survivor Marilyn Nesby
Former long-time smoker Marilyn Nesby, right, was at high risk for developing lung cancer. Fortunately, a screening test called a low-dose CT scan detected cancer at an early stage, before it had spread. Thoracic surgeon Jessica Donington, MD, left, used a minimally invasive procedure to remove the cancer and nearby lymph nodes.

Six years ago, after smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years, Marilyn Nesby quit.

But her long history of smoking put the 72-year-old South Side woman at high risk for developing lung cancer. So during a regular physical last summer, her University of Chicago Medicine primary care physician told Nesby she should be screened for the disease.

A scan called low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) is recommended for screening individuals who: have a history of heavy smoking; are currently smoking or have quit in the previous 15 years; are between 55 and 80 years old; and are in good health. Nesby fit all of the criteria.

The quick and painless CT scan uses a low dose of radiation to make detailed pictures of the lungs. When an abnormality was detected on Nesby’s upper right lung, she was referred to the lung cancer team at UChicago Medicine.

This multidisciplinary group of specialists — radiologists, pulmonologists, oncologists, surgeons and advanced practice nurses — meets weekly to discuss and determine the most effective course of treatment for lung cancer patients. For Nesby, the team recommended an ultrasound procedure and surgery.

Pulmonologist Septimiu (Tim) Murgu, MD, performed endobronchial ultrasound, which accurately determined the cancer was Stage 1. Soon after, Jessica Donington, MD, performed video-assisted thoracic surgery, or VATS, to remove the tumor in an upper segment of Nesby’s right lung and 10 nearby lymph nodes. This minimally invasive procedure required just three small incisions and Nesby was able to go home a few days later.


The cure rate for patients diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer is more than 70 percent.


Because there was no evidence of cancer in the lymph nodes, she didn’t need further treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

“As with most patients with Stage 1 lung cancer, Marilyn now has a very high chance to be cured,” said Donington. As a precaution, Nesby will have regular CT screens to watch for a recurrence.

Nesby remembers being scared and nervous when she first learned she had cancer and needed surgery. “But I turned to my faith and then I wasn’t worried anymore,” she said. “And once I met Dr. Donington and her team, I knew everything would be all right.”
Designated lung cancer screening center

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Lung cancer screening can help detect lung cancer in its early stages, when it's easier to treat. UChicago Medicine is a designated Lung Cancer Screening Center and offers lung cancer screening at several convenient locations throughout the Chicago area.

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Radiologist Christopher Straus, MD, reviews radiology images

Lung Cancer Care

At UChicago Medicine, we offer a wide range of lung cancer care options, including minimally invasive surgery and innovative targeted therapies, as well as clinical trials of promising treatments not widely available.

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Jessica Donington, MD

Jessica Donington, MD, MSCR

Jessica S. Donington, MD, is an expert thoracic surgeon who treats the full spectrum of lung, esophageal and mediastinal conditions. Her focus is on the comprehensive and multidisciplinary care of benign and malignant chest diseases.

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