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Patient Stories

Saved by a Scan Former Smoker Makes Life-Saving Choice to Undergo Lung Cancer Screening

"This can’t be happening to me,” thought Elizabeth Willard as she listened to her physician deliver her diagnosis of lung cancer. “At the same time, I regretted how foolish I was for smoking all of those years.”


After 30 years of smoking nearly a pack per day, Willard finally quit in 2007. And while she knew it was the right decision, she wouldn’t learn just how important it was to her health until the summer of 2015.

Familiar with Willard’s smoking history, her primary care physician suggested she undergo a lung cancer screening, a test recommended for former smokers who are not yet showing symptoms of the disease.


While the 59-year-old wasn’t initially keen on the idea, she agreed to explore the lung cancer screening program at NSMC. “I didn’t want to face the fact that my decision to smoke for so long could be affecting my health now,” Willard says.


The lung cancer screening program at NSMC is designed to evaluate patients who have a history of smoking. It uses low dose CT, or computerized tomography, scanning to identify early signs of lung disease.


Willard’s lung cancer screening, performed in August of 2015 at NSMC Salem Hospital, revealed a nodule on her lung. NSMC interventional radiologist Miriam Neuman, M.D., performed a needle biopsy that confirmed that the nodule was cancerous. Willard was diagnosed with stage one non-small-cell carcinoma.

Elizabeth Willard tells her story. Watch:

Willard was then referred to NSMC and Massachusetts General Hospital thoracic surgeon Dean Donahue, M.D., who suggested removing the affected lobe on her left lung. “Because Elizabeth’s cancer was diagnosed early, she was able to have a minimally invasive procedure to remove the cancerous tumor,” says Dr. Donahue. “With any cancer, the key to a good prognosis, like Elizabeth’s, is early detection.”


On September 23, 2015, just two weeks after being diagnosed, Dr. Donahue performed Willard’s lobectomy. Willard spent a week at NSMC Salem Hospital so her lung function could be monitored, and returned to normal activity within a couple of months. She attributes her smooth recovery to her great care team and an active lifestyle prior to the surgery. “I am the last one to shake a finger at anybody for smoking,” says Willard. “But if I hadn’t quit smoking, things could have turned out much worse for me. I’m too young to be unhealthy, and that is exactly what smoking was making me.”