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Living down to earth following cancer diagnosis

Routine lung cancer screening detects one woman’s lung cancer early

Emily Rankin of Stuarts Draft, Virginia, thought she was out of the woods. While she began smoking in her late 20s, she quit in her early 60s. Still, at the advice of her family doctor, Rankin, 71, decided to be screened for lung cancer in May 2017.

“There was really nothing to it,” the retiree and avid gardener recalls of the Low-Dose CT Scan. “It took maybe two or three minutes, five at the most. It’s quick and simple. But it did the job.”

That simple screening turned out to be a life-changing experience. To Rankin’s surprise, the routine screening found an 8-millimeter mass in her left lung. After a few more CT scans, Rankin’s doctor, Jason Lawrence, MD, a pulmonologist at Augusta Health, sent her to Miguel Aguinaga, MD, FACS, a thoracic surgeon at Augusta Health.

In order to have her cancer removed, Dr. Aguinaga performed a lobectomy with robotic assistance, which is a minimally invasive procedure, and therefore has a quicker, easier recovery time than other surgical interventions for lung cancer.

The traditional procedure, a thoracotomy, consists of a large incision, and patients typically stay in the hospital for 10 days. Many people also have immense pain following this procedure, Dr. Aguinaga says. The new, minimally invasive surgery is quicker, and patients can be discharged within one to three days,

Dr. Aguinaga says. Rankin’s surgery consisted of just six small holes on her side and back.

Dr. Aguinaga notes that one benefit of the robotic surgery is that it allows for more precision. “You have a camera inside of the patient, so you’re viewing what’s happening,” he says. “And with your hands, you reproduce the movements you want the robot to do. The reason we use a robot is because you can really get into tight spaces. The vision is incredible.”

Rare cancer revealed

Rankin had surgery on Jan. 16, 2018. Dr. Aguinaga removed the upper lobe of her left lung. The 8-millimeter mass turned out to be a carcinoid tumor, which is a very rare, slow-growing cancer.

Rankin’s lymph nodes all tested negative for cancer, and she went home the following day. “I was cancer-free with no chemotherapy, and no radiation treatments had to be done,” Rankin says. “It was all because of this CT scan catching [the cancer] early.”

Augusta Health is one of the only hospitals in the area to perform a lobectomy with robotic assistance. “Emily was the first case we’ve done here at Augusta Health using robotics,” Dr. Aguinaga notes. “I believe we are the only program in the entire region that is doing thoracic surgery using robotics.”

Fast recovery

Rankin’s surgery was in the morning, and that evening she says she was sitting up in a chair eating French fries. “Dr. Aguinaga came in, and he had the biggest smile on his face [because] I had recovered that quickly,” she says.

She went home the next day. Within a few weeks, Rankin — who retired from a factory making pharmaceutical tubes in 2011 — says she was in her flowerbeds cleaning out leaves. “I’m doing everything I thought I would never get to do again because I had cancer,” she says.

Rankin remains grateful for her husband’s support, along with the outstanding care she received from the medical team at Augusta Health.

“I was scared to death,” she says. “Everybody seemed to put me at ease. The healthcare was really great. It was a bad experience that was made good.”

Rankin also can’t emphasize how glad she is to have undergone the lung cancer screening. She encourages other high-risk individuals to do the same.

“I hadn’t smoked for eight years, so I thought, Oh, I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong with me,” she says. “If people would have these [screenings] done — especially if they were smokers and they stopped — they would have a good success story like mine.”

To schedule a lung cancer screening or to determine if you’re a good candidate, contact Augusta Health at (540) 332-4400 (Staunton) or (540) 932-4400 (Waynesboro).