Getting cigarettes as a teenager came easy for Kathleen Yeomans. Unfortunately, getting lung cancer as an adult came easy, too.
But fortunately for Yeomans, who was one of the first patients to go through the Spectrum Health Lung Mass and Cancer Care Multispecialty Team’s early detection screening program, her cancer was unearthed before it could develop strong roots.
On and off smoking
“I started smoking back when I was 18,” Yeomans said. “I was going to Grand Rapids Junior College and my boyfriend and I would meet at the Pantlind Hotel. He smoked horrible menthol cigarettes and drank coffee with cream and sugar.”
Yeomans picked up both habits. And many of her cigarettes were free, there for the picking.
She worked for an advertising company in downtown Grand Rapids.
“Back then they passed out free samples—five cigarettes,” she recalled. “There was always a cigarette girl passing out cigarettes on the street so I could pick up a pack on my way to lunch and a pack on my way back from lunch.”
The nicotine lured her in. Her body craved it. She complied.
“When I got married I married a smoker so we smoked together,” said Yeomans, 69.
She quit when each of her three children was born, but each time proceeded to puff again.
On and off, on and off, but mostly on, with smoke curling around her daily activities like haunting tentacles of impending doom.
‘Grandmas don’t smoke’
About seven years ago, she tried Chantix, a prescription smoking cessation medication. It worked. She quit.
Two years later, her first grandchild entered her life. That sealed the cigarette sayonara.
“I became a grandma five years ago and that was it,” the Ada, Michigan, woman said. “Grandmas don’t smoke.”
Grant, 5, may have changed her life, but it was the early cancer detection that granted her the chance of a longer life.
Yeomans’ Spectrum Health Medical Group doctor, Chad Coe, MD, suggested the screening.
“He said, ‘You know, you’re an ex-smoker and you’re over 65. There’s this new program we started where you have a CT scan every year at Lemmen-Holton.’”
Dr. Coe said chest X-rays aren’t effective indicators.
“We have been looking for a way to detect lung cancer early in higher-risk patients,” Dr. Coe said. “The recommendation put out in 2013 established low-dose CT scans as an effective way of screening high-risk patients.”
On May 13, Yeomans traveled to the Spectrum Health Cancer Center for the scan.
“They called and said they needed another test, but I wasn’t too worried because they had warned me ahead of time there very likely could be a false reading and they might need to do another scan,” Yeomans recalled.
On June 9, she had a PET scan, a more thorough diagnostic tool.
Two days later, test results snuffed out her cancer-free track record. Like the rolled tobacco that had so often burned in her ashtray, her mind smoldered.
‘I can operate tomorrow’
“They told me at Lemmen-Holton,” she said. “They said, ‘We’re going to send you right over to the Meijer Heart Center to talk to Dr. Hayanga.'”
“He introduced himself and said, ‘I can operate tomorrow,’” she recalled of her June 11 meeting with Jeremiah Hayanga, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon. “He is a wonderful, warm-hearted man but he scared me.”
Yeomans, who works with special needs children for the Forest Hills School District, said she wanted to wait until the following week so it wouldn’t interfere with her summer camp commitment.
On June 16, Dr. Hayanga removed the left upper lung lobe.
“It was concentrated there,” she said. “It was so close to the pulmonary artery that they had to remove the entire lobe. It was stage 1 cancer, the smallest form.”
When Yeomans awoke after surgery, Dr. Hayanga had good news.
“He said it all went in the bucket and I wouldn’t need chemo and I wouldn’t need radiation,” Yeomans said. “When he said that it was such a relief. To this day, I think of myself as having cancer for only those five days.”
Dr. Coe said the early catch was critical to a successful outcome.
“I would say she is very fortunate,” Dr. Coe said. “For Kathy, based on her positive outcome as well as notes from her pulmonologist, it seems as though surgery could be potentially curative for her.”
Yeomans healed for the rest of the summer. By early August she was able to take a power shopping girls’ trip with sisters, daughters and nieces. By mid-August she returned to her summer job part time and by fall, resumed her school job.
“I work six hours a day with special needs middle and high school students, care for my grandson (Grant) for two hours and have resumed all my usual activities—with a little spring in my step.”
She’s also back to playing kickball with Grant, meeting him at the bus stop every day and exploring science projects with her pride and joy.
“I often think of the fact that without the screening program, that cancer would still be growing in my lung and I wouldn’t even know it,” Yeomans said.