Patient Stories

Lung Cancer Early Detection Patient

Marla Olson

Fearing Lung Cancer

On March 23, 2010, Marla Olson decided to go see her doctor because she wasn’t feeling well and had flu-like symptoms with a bad cough, aching body, fever, and sinusitis. Her doctor prescribed Zithromax Z-Pak, a type of antibiotics used to treat bacterial respiratory infections.

“I was out of work that week and went to work the next week but didn’t feel much better. On March 31, I went to a doctor at the UW Medicine Neighborhood Clinic in Shoreline. They had me get a chest X-ray where they saw a large mass in my right lung,” Marla says.

Diagnosed with a definite pneumonia, her UW physician told her the Z-pak had been an appropriate treatment, but she needed something stronger. She received a prescription for a different antibiotic with the instructions that if she were to experience trouble breathing she should go to the emergency room.

That night, that’s just where Marla went.

“It was midnight and I was having bad pain in my chest. The hospital did a CT scan and the doctor told me on the spot, in a not-very-kind way, that I had lung cancer!” Marla says.

Marla had been a smoker for over 35 years, so the idea of lung cancer wasn’t a complete surprise. The next day, Marla’s sister, who worked at University of Washington Medical Center, helped her get an appointment with Dr. Jason Chien, Director of the Lung Cancer Early Detection and Prevention Clinic at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

During her clinic visit, Dr. Chien asked many detailed questions about all of the symptoms Marla had experienced over the last few weeks. “Dr. Chien asked me if I’d actually seen my CT scan from the other hospital,” Marla says. She hadn’t, so Dr. Chien showed it to her and Marla saw for herself how a mass took up nearly her entire lung. In addition, there were several enlarged lymph nodes in the middle of her chest, “which, in some patients, may represent the spread of lung cancer beyond her lungs,” Dr. Chien says.

While lung cancer was definitely a real possibility, especially with her long history of smoking, Dr. Chien was not absolutely convinced that she had cancer, and suggested that this might be due to a severe infection. However, because her lung cancer risk was high it was important that quick action be taken to make a clear diagnosis so that treatment, if necessary, could be started as soon as possible.

“I saw Dr. Chien on April 7 and on Thursday, April 8 I was in for a bronchoscopy (a procedure that allows the physician to see directly into the interior passageways of the lower respiratory tract through a bronchoscope—a long, narrow, fiberoptic, lighted tube that is inserted through the nose or mouth).”

Marla spent a “nerve-wracking” weekend waiting for the results of this test.

Time to Quit Smoking

“I’ve never been so impressed with a doctor’s professionalism as I was with Dr. Chien’s,” Marla says. “He didn’t talk down to me. He let me take all the time I needed to talk to him and ask him questions. Then, he got the nurses to come in and talk to me about smoking cessation – and we agreed that the next day I’d quit smoking.”

The next morning, right after getting out of the shower, Marla put on one of the nicotine patches she’d received free from the SCCA pharmacy. “The next three weeks were horrible as I got off of nicotine,” Marla says.

Bronchoscopy Results

Marla feared for the worst and could hardly believe it when the phone rang early Monday morning after her bronchoscopy. Dr. Chien gave Marla the best news – no cancer! Even her lymph nodes were clear.

A follow-up CT revealed that the antibiotics were doing their job and the mass was less than half its original size. “Additional follow-up CTs will be necessary to make sure the mass, which was likely pneumonia, resolves completely,” Dr. Chien says. “However, it was highly unlikely that lung cancer was the cause, given the dramatic improvement.

“Marla has been one of the happiest outcomes we have had (in the Lung Cancer Early Detection and Prevention Clinic),” Dr. Chien says. “A great example of how a thorough work-up is important before designating someone as having cancer.”

“Dr. Chien told me that these results weren’t a free ride for me to start smoking again,” Marla says. “I told him I never wanted to smoke again, nor did I ever want to feel like that (during the withdrawal period) ever again.”

Family History

Marla’s grandfather was a smoker. He died of throat cancer. Her father was a smoker. He died of a heart attack. Marla now considers herself an ex-smoker, and she’s determined not to become a lung cancer patient.

“I have nothing but the highest praise for SCCA,” Marla says. “Everyone treated me with respect and dignity. I got nothing but support, compassion, and free nicotine patches. I just so appreciate everyone there, from the lab to the pharmacy, the nurses, and Dr. Chien. They are all wonderful.”