Connie Castro, 73, smoked for 50 years. Karen Van Zee, 68, never smoked in her life. Yet both women had a crucial catch—their lung cancer was diagnosed early, and their prognosis is good.
Last week, the Seattle Seahawks brought in cancer survivors treated at Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan, and a few of their physicians, to watch a closed practice at the team's practice facility in Renton. It's part of the month-long campaign, A Crucial Catch: Intercept Cancer, created by the NFL and the American Cancer Society. The focus of Crucial Catch is to encourage early screening and testing to detect cancer in its earliest stage.
"My lung cancer was caught by accident," said Van Zee, who lives in Federal Way. "I had strained my chest wall and they did a CT scan and discovered a shadow on my right lung. I had a miracle that day because I had no cough, no symptoms. It was truly a crucial catch."
Castro knew smoking cigarettes could cause cancer, but she always pushed it to the back of her mind, to deal with it at another time. The retired title clerk also had no symptoms that anything was wrong with her. Earlier this year, her doctor suggested a new piece of equipment to screen for lung cancer, since Castro was a smoker, and the affable woman agreed. When she learned of her lung cancer, Castro immediately became a non-smoker.
"I'm also very fortunate," Castro said, blinking back tears. "Had this technology not been available, my cancer would have spread. As it is, they removed part of my lung and got it all. So, when I hear the words crucial catch, in my case, that catch saved my life."
NFL teams are hosting Crucial Catch games throughout October to bring awareness that cancer can be caught in early stages if you screen early. Teams are funding early screening at community health centers throughout the country. The Seahawks hosted their Crucial Catch game this past Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, and on Tuesday, a Crucial Catch screening day will be held in Bremerton at Peninsula Community Health. The clinic will screen for breast, colon and cervical cancers.
Dr. Misho Hubka, a thoracic surgeon specializing in lung cancer at Virginia Mason, said every time a physician can detect cancer at an early stage, "that's a crucial catch."
"Lung cancer is a silent killer," Hubka said. "By the time there are symptoms, the disease is usually advanced and treatment is more challenging. When we catch lung cancer early, it's often by accident or through a screening process —that is why lung cancer screening is so important."
Colon cancer is another highly screenable cancer that the Crucial Catch program has targeted. Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine (colon), which is the final part of your digestive tract. Most cases of colon cancer begin as small, noncancerous (benign) clumps of cells called adenomatous polyps. Over time some of these polyps can become colon cancers.
Valerie Schock, 57, was thrilled to watch the Seahawks practice and hoped to get an autograph from her favorite player, Bobby Wagner. She is a colon cancer survivor who began having symptoms six years ago with abdominal pain. In Schock's case, her original diagnosis was not colon cancer and for years, she lived in pain, wondering what was wrong with her.
"If there's anything I can urge here, it's trust yourself and your body," Schock said. "Keep insisting if a diagnosis doesn't feel right and you continue to have symptoms. Crucial Catch is all about early detection and it will save lives."
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer death, said Dr. Shalini Kanneganti, a colorectal surgeon at CHI Franciscan. The irony is that colon cancer is also one of the most preventable and treatable cancers with early detection.
"As with some cancers, early colon cancer has no symptoms," said Kanneganti. "And we are seeing colon cancer at earlier ages than ever before, so catching it early is vital."
The recommended screening age has been 50, but recent studies showing colon cancer on the rise in patients as early as 30 and 40, and that has prompted some advisory groups (i.e. American Cancer Society) to drop the age to 45, Kanneganti said. With early screening, the survival rate for colon cancer is more than 90 percent.
The Crucial Catch campaign also urges early screening for breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. Breast cancer is also the second leading cause of cancer death among women. Each year it is estimated that more than 252,710 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Kathy Himes is a nurse who has always been consistent in self-exams. When she found a lump in her breast earlier this year, that was her Crucial Catch moment. Despite being fit and watching her diet, Himes carries the BRCA gene, a genetic marker for breast cancer. As her physician Dr. Ani Fleisig, an oncology surgeon specializing in breast cancer at CHI Franciscan, said, breast cancer does not discriminate.
Hearing statistics about breast cancer, like one in eight women will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime, can sometimes be scary and overwhelming. But becoming armed with knowledge about the disease, like risk factors, symptoms and the importance of early detection, can go a long way in calming those fears, said Dr. Fleisig. And for more than 200,000 American women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, that awareness is golden.
As Himes watched the Seahawks practice, she and Dr. Fleisig praised the Crucial Catch campaign for bringing early detection to the forefront, and in front of different audiences. Although Himes, diagnosed with triple negative, stage 2 breast cancer, is a nurse who believes in wellness of the body, she was still surprised by her diagnosis.
"As a nurse, I know that if you can catch cancer early, you've increased your survival rate right off the bat," said Himes. "I feel lucky in the sense that I found a lump and acted on it right away."
For young women without a history of breast cancer in their families, Dr. Fleisig suggests "breast awareness" rather than constant breast exams.
"Know your body and be sensitive to any changes," Fleisig said. "And if you do feel something or feel a change, let your doctor know. That initial feeling can save your life."