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Researchers, Clinicians, and Former NFL Linebacker Promote Lung Cancer Awareness

A man in military uniform pushes a man into a screening device in a medical setting. Patient at Naval Hospital Pensacola prepares to have a low-dose computed tomography test done to screen for lung cancer. (Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Jason Bortz)
By Vivian Mason

Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer death in the United States. Even though it has that distinction, it is not considered hopeless. “Many advancements in research, medicine, procedures, and surgery are constantly improving treatment and patient prognoses,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Karen G. Zeman, in her opening remarks at the Lung Cancer Summit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).  Zeman is an assistant professor of Medicine in the F. Edward H├ębert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University (USU) and is assigned to Thoracic Medical Oncology at WRNMMC.

The John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed Bethesda (the only Department of Defense Cancer Center of Excellence in the Military Health System and a USU center) hosted the annual Lung Cancer Summit and Awareness Day on November 3 to provide a forum for the discussion of the current and future state of lung cancer prevention, diagnosis and care. The summit put the spotlight on awareness, research, education, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.

Infographic that says: 5 facts about lung cancer. 1) the leading cause of cancer death among men and women. 2) more than 400,000 people alive today diagnosed. 3) smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer. 4) if caught early it is very treatable, even curable. 5) 2 out 3 people diagnosed are 65 or older

“We have enhanced our capabilities of the USU/WRNMMC Murtha Cancer Center by teaming with the National Cancer Institute to conduct … innovative research and provide state-of-the-science clinical care,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Craig D. Shriver, the Oliver H. Beahrs Professor of Surgery at USU, and director of the Murtha Cancer Center.  The partnership allows the Center to offer military and civilian patients cutting-edge diagnostic treatment technologies, multidisciplinary cancer care, and patient–family support services.

Chris Draft, a former National Football League linebacker and President & CEO of Team Draft, shared his personal story of losing his wife, Keasha, to lung cancer at age 35. He stressed the importance of screening, education, and getting people involved with early detection to save lives.  Keasha’s only symptom was shortness of breath, he said, and she was not a smoker. “If cancer came into your life,” he asked, “how strong would you be?”

A lit cigarette in an ash tray with a "no smoking" sign in the background
It’s a fact that smoking is harmful to the human body.
(Image credit:
Often people with lung cancer do not display symptoms until the disease is in its later stages. A tumor could be in the lungs without causing any pain or discomfort. When symptoms are present, they are different in each person, but may include the following: a cough that doesn't go away, but gets worse over time; a chronic cough or "smoker's cough"; hoarseness; constant chest pain; shortness of breath or wheezing; frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia; and coughing up blood.

The medical recommendation is that you see your healthcare provider right away if you notice any of these symptoms. Or, if you think you are at risk for lung cancer, talk to your doctor about being screened because screening looks for cancer before a person has any symptoms. The American Lung Association reports that, “Screening can save thousands of lives, yet less than five percent of the estimated nine million Americans who are considered ‘high risk’ have been screened.”

The summit also featured cancer clinicians and researchers who provided valuable information and updates on the management of non-small cell lung cancer, lung cancer screening, emerging trends in lung cancer screening and treatment, and radiation oncology treatment of lung cancer at WRNMMC. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Robert Browning, associate professor of Medicine at USU, and Army Lt. Col.  (Dr.) Philip Mullenix, associate professor of Surgery at USU, both gave talks on “Advances in Bronchoscopy” and “An Update on Surgical Interventions in Lung Cancer,” respectively. Keynote speaker retired Navy Capt. (Dr.) Martin J. Edelman, professor and chair at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, spoke on “Unasked and Unanswered Questions in the Management of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” A lung cancer awareness patient seminar was presented at the end of the summit and was hosted by Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Joseph E. Zeman, assistant program director of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at WRNMMC, and Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Karen Zeman.

A woman in military uniform is explaining something to a civilian woman at what looks like some sort of educational fair
Navy Cmdr. Elena Prezioso (left) and Carolyn Mesnak (sitting) provide information on
lung cancer screening and tobacco cessation programs. (Image credit:
Dr. Shriver also spoke to the fact that, “Many Vietnam veterans who smoked are at higher risk for lung cancer. And certainly anybody who smoked in the past or even if they stopped 10 or 15 years ago are at risk for lung cancer. We now know that early detection of lung cancer through the non-contrast CT scan is pivotal in detecting it early so it can be cured. Really, the main hope we have for curing lung cancer is to find it early.” Interestingly, years ago, field rations often included canned meat, canned fruit, chewing gum, and cigarettes.

Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. Events like the Lung Cancer Summit and Awareness Day play an important role in conveying much-needed information about new breakthroughs in research, diagnosis, and treatment.