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A New Way to Detect Lung Cancer at Its Earliest Stage

January 17, 2024

Photo of Nancy P. with family at Chirstmas

Nancy P. had quit smoking more than 20 years ago. But in 2021, when she arrived at Overlook Medical Center’s emergency department with severe abdominal pain, her body scan not only confirmed colitis, but it also detected some abnormal tissue in her right lung.

Although Nancy felt fortunate to have the early-stage lung nodule found, she would soon have another reason to be even more thankful. Just over a year later, Nancy became one of the first patients at Atlantic Health System to receive an innovative new medication called Cytalux®, which detected and helped treat her lung cancer at its earliest stage.

Toggling Between Fear and Hope

Nancy first talked with her Atlantic Health System primary care physician, Daniel Preston, MD, who swiftly referred her to the pulmonology team, now under the care of Robert Restifo, DO. As the nodule in her lung grew, her doctor decided it was time to refer Nancy to Atlantic Health System thoracic surgeon, Federico Steiner, MD.

“I was scared about the biopsy, but Dr. Steiner was knowledgeable, compassionate, and it was easy to place my trust in him,” she said. “When the pathology came back malignant, it confirmed what Dr. Steiner knew all along. The cancerous cells, margins, and lymph nodes all had to come out.”

Following the major surgery, Nancy needed plenty of time to recover. But with clean CT and PET scans, she recuperated with peace of mind, believing the worst was behind her. All that was required now was a scan twice a year. As long as her scans remained clear, Nancy could re-focus her time and energy on her husband, children, and grandkids.

A Game-Changing Innovation

However, just over a year later, Nancy’s routine lung scan showed suspicious growth activity once again. This time the nodule was developing in her left lung, and she knew exactly what to do — reach out again to Dr. Steiner. But before she could schedule a visit, Dr. Steiner called Nancy about a new pre-surgery innovation that he wanted her to consider.

“We’re one of the first health systems in the country to offer a new medication called Cytalux, which is changing the way we detect and treat lung cancer,” says Dr. Steiner. “For patients like Nancy who have known or suspected lung cancer, the medication allows us to identify very small tumors in the lungs, even those that can’t be seen on scans. Treatment is less invasive than traditional methods and improves long-term survival for lung cancer patients.”

Dr. Steiner administered the painless medication intravenously one hour before Nancy’s surgery, and as she recalls, the cancerous cells within the growing eight-millimeter nodule “lit up like a Christmas tree.”

A Quicker Recovery With Cytalux Than Without

“The medication is made up of fluorescent folic acid that illuminates cancer cells in the body,” says Dr. Steiner. “We could see and remove tiny lesions in Nancy’s lung that weren’t even visible on the imaging. Cytalux lets us intervene very early with a high degree of confidence that we got all of the malignant cells, rather than observing a patient for months while cancer cells continue to grow.”

Knowing this, Nancy was feeling great just two weeks after surgery, and also feeling incredibly lucky. She was up and about with no medications, no lingering symptoms, and no follow-up treatments required. She had survived lung cancer.

Now at the age of 65 and fully retired, Nancy spends time with her children in both New Jersey and Florida. She and her husband have a new lease on life, boating and enjoying their growing grandchildren. And once again, all she needs to manage her care is to visit Dr. Restifo every six months for a CT scan.

I am a cancer survivor,” says Nancy, who credits her health to the collaboration of her Atlantic health care team. “I feel so lucky that Dr. Steiner considered me for this treatment and I’m looking ahead to my five-year cancer-free mark. Of course, my doctors are watching me closely, but I’m full of hope because we caught it so early this time, and I think we got it all.”

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