For the approximately 541,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer each year, such a diagnosis is often life-changing and unexpected. Following a diagnosis, patients and their doctors begin the delicate process of determining the best treatment plan. Recently, advancements in medical technology have given way to a breakthrough treatment option helping more and more patients every day.
The Ion endoluminal system, known as Ion, allows thoracic surgeons and pulmonologists to navigate the human lung and its intricate tissue. By maneuvering through these areas, doctors are given unprecedented access to hard-to-reach nodules. The minimally invasive, robotic-assisted tool aids doctors in identifying lung cancers earlier and more accurately than previous technologies. This means a more effective treatment plan and better outcomes—a reality Kathleen Keenan Weil, a former patient at HMH Hackensack Medical Center and two-time lung cancer warrior, knows all too well.
“Twenty years ago, I had a CAT scan that showed a growth in my right lung,” recalls Weil. “At that time, when they went in for a biopsy, they discovered that it was a large cancer growth called squamous cell. It was removed via a thoracotomy of my right lung.”
The procedure required her surgeon to make a 10-inch incision from her right armpit to her rib cage, spreading her ribs to provide access to the affected area. Following the invasive procedure, Weil recounts a lengthy and uncomfortable recovery period.
“I was on a lot of painkillers for over two months,” she says. “The healing was extremely painful, drawn out and uncomfortable. That is why I did not start radiation treatments until January.”
After Weil experienced a familiar shortness of breath earlier this year, she made an appointment with her cardiologist for a scan. He informed her that she needed to visit her pulmonologist. After being diagnosed with lung cancer for a second time, doctors now had Ion to guide the way.
“I had maybe six brown spots on my torso and under my left armpit for guiding the robot, and also from one drain tube,” Weil says. “I could have left that night.” This time around, Weil was able to leave the hospital the day after her procedure with some Tylenol.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” says Dr. Geoffrey Pelz, a thoracic surgeon at HMH Hackensack University Medical Center. Pelz likens using the technology to driving with a GPS.
“The Ion is so advanced. It helps guide you directly where you need to go, anywhere in the lung. I can use the technology either for biopsy or to put dye in the lung nodule to localize it,” he explains. “In combination with the DaVinci Surgical Robot, I can resect the nodule in question during the same trip to the operating room, saving time and unnecessary steps for the patients. It allows me to perform more lung-sparing surgeries and helps patients recover much faster and get back to living their lives cancer-free.”
For thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists and patients nationwide, the cutting-edge technology is an exciting leap forward. Combined with other treatment options, Ion offers doctors a new and improved way to better treat patients.
“Everything has improved, but the difference with the Ion technology compared to some of the other techniques or machines from other companies is this has taken a lot of the issues that we saw with the other technologies and accounted for that,” says Pelz.
Doctors do still recommend patients take preventative measures to ensure they are staying on top of their health. The new technology is not a replacement for preventive screening methods like annual CT scans. According to the American Lung Association, early detection by low-dose CT screenings can decrease lung cancer mortality by 14 to 20 percent among high-risk populations. If half of the eight million Americans who qualify as high-risk for lung cancer received their annual screenings, over 12,000 lung cancer deaths could be prevented.
For Weil, her introduction to the value of a CT scan came two decades ago after hearing about another woman around her age battling breast cancer after a CT scan. By this time, Weil was experiencing her first lung cancer symptoms and wanted answers.
“Everybody didn’t get CAT scans 20 years ago; it was a pretty new thing,” Weil recounts. Her neighbor, a radiologist at the time, helped her set up her screening. “I had the CAT scan, and to everybody’s shock, [my diagnosis] is what came out of it.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent volunteer panel of national experts in disease prevention and evidence-based medicine, recommended that people ages 50–80 receive an annual low-dose CT scan. The task force also reduced the number of pack years to 20. The change reflects the organization’s latest attempt to increase the number of eligible people for screenings.
Along with the USPSTF and other health care professionals, Dr. Pelz stresses the importance of early detection and acknowledges that although Ion is a helpful tool in treating lung cancer, it does not replace the need for CT scans.
“If it’s something that is maybe in the middle third of the lung, that’s really where this Ion technology would be best suited to get biopsies of lung lesions,” says Pelz. “But it’s definitely sort of the next step after a screening CT scan to actually biopsy something suspicious on that one cancer screening scan.”
Ion technology is leading the way in the battle against lung cancer, offering patients and doctors a new outlook on possibilities following a lung cancer diagnosis.
“Overall, we can do more lung-sparing surgeries and get people in and out of the hospital much faster and recover much quicker,” says Pelz. “If they do need chemotherapy or something afterward—because we can get them recovered so quickly, there’s not a delay in getting onto that next stage of treatment.”
For more information about Ion technology, visit intuitive.com.