Arizona Representative Lela Alston has dedicated her life to advocating for others, but she neglected her own health until recently when she was diagnosed with lung cancer following a screening at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.
Alston had been a longtime heavy smoker, but kicked the habit several years ago. On the advice of her doctor, the Phoenix resident began annual screenings at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute, a designated lung cancer screening facility by the American College of Radiology. The initial screenings were clean, but the results of a CT scan in late 2014 came with the news that nobody wants to hear: “You have lung cancer.”
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and Alston is joining her St. Joseph’s physicians in advocating for early lung cancer screening for individuals at risk for the disease. This includes individuals ages 55 to 80, current smokers and those who have quit within the past 15 years.
According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer kills more men and women in the United States than any other cancer. A National Cancer Institute study indicated that early detection could reduce deaths by 20 percent.
“Without it, six out of 10 people diagnosed die within a year,” said Elbert Kuo, MD, who performed surgery to remove the cancer in Alston’s lung. “Studies also show that if we find the cancer early, eight of 10 patients will still be alive five years later.”
Following surgery, Alston received radiation for a small spot on her other lung, and remains under the care of Panos Fidias, MD, thoracic oncologist at University of Arizona Cancer Center at St. Joseph’s. Today, she is as determined to overcome her personal health setback as she has been fighting political causes for more than 20 years serving in the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives. That resolve is due mostly to the fact that her lung cancer was caught early. “I am so grateful that St. Joseph’s offers this lung cancer screening program,” Alston said. “My prognosis would not be as good without it.”
Alston has formed a team for the American Lung Association’s Lung Force Walk on Nov. 14 in Phoenix. “Lela’s Team” hopes to raise more than $5,000 toward lung cancer research, advocacy, education and awareness.