The fortuitous fall: Freak accident leads to lung cancer diagnosis

PITTSBURGH — Jean Linn of Ohio Township was just starting to learn the sport of pickleball when her enthusiasm got the best of her and she lunged for a hard-to-reach ball.

“I curled in and the pickle ball racket— when I went down, went into my ribs.”

The pain was excruciating.

“Oh, it hurt so much. I couldn’t breathe. I kept saying— ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

Jean thought she had broken ribs, but an X-ray the next day showed something more serious.

“The doctor came out. He said, ‘there’s good news. There’s no breaks, no fractures.’ He said, ‘however, how long have you had this inch spot on your lung?’”

At that moment she feared the worst and immediately told her husband.

“I said, ‘good news, no breaks. Bad news, I have cancer,” Jean remembered telling him.

That word landed hard.

“He didn’t say anything. He was in shock. For him, I think it’s more overwhelming than it is for me,” she said.

Hearing the C-word

Married for more than 40 years, Jean and Ron Linn first met in college at Penn State in 1972. He never expected that word to come from his always-healthy and active wife.

“Phew,” Ron said, recalling the moment Jean told him. “It, aaah. It got me.”

Hearing “cancer” is always a shock for anyone, especially lung cancer — and for good reason. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. More than 130,000 people die from it each year. In most cases, when you start having symptoms it’s already too late to treat successfully.

But lung cancer no longer has to be a death sentence.

Early diagnosis is the key to survival, and a state-of-the-art diagnostic tool called the Monarch Robotic Bronchoscope at UPMC is helping to save lives.

“Monarch has been a game changer in allowing earlier detection of lung cancer,” said Dr. Ryan Levy, chief of thoracic surgery at UPMC Passavant, and one of the first surgeons in Allegheny County to use the Monarch tool. “Right now, the biggest advantage of Monarch is early detection, early diagnosis, which leads to earlier treatment and a higher cure rate.”

Game Changer

Dr. Levy was Jean’s surgeon at UPMC.

Her tumor was deep in her left lung and more centrally located, making it tougher and riskier to do a traditional biopsy.

“Older technology that we utilized— which would be sticking a needle from the outside in with CAT scan guidance, tends to have a higher rate of lung collapse,” Dr. Levy explained.

So, for Jean, Dr. Levy used the Monarch Robotic Bronchoscope. The new technology gives surgeons the ability to access tumors in areas never before reachable.

The surgeon uses a video game-type controller to navigate a scope through the lung.

“It’s a very small camera with a very small opening on the end of it, and we can get to areas of the lung in these very, very small airways,” Dr. Levy said. “It’s pretty amazing. You can actually see these tumors with this little, microscopic camera.”

Jean’s biopsy confirmed cancer, and she — a non-smoker — had the top portion of her right lung removed.

“It was a shock. It’s a mutation. It’s a cell that went crazy. So, what made it go crazy. I have no idea,” Jean said, reflecting on the diagnosis.

20% of lung cancers in non-smokers

Smokers make up the majority of lung cancers diagnosed in the United States, but 20% of cases are among non-smokers.

It is recommended that smokers get lung screening CT scans every year, but there’s no such recommendation for non-smokers.

Without that freak accident, it’s all but certain that Jean would never have known cancer was growing inside her until it was too late.

“We call it the fortuitous fall,” Jean said, smiling.

Dr. Levy agrees. That fall was quite fortunate.

“Most symptomatic lung cancers are detected at a later stage where the disease is not usually curable,” he said. “So, the fact that this was picked up by a freak fall was quite lucky.”

Fortuitous fall

Jean is now undergoing chemotherapy. Ron is always by her side. A retired Army colonel who’s been to war multiple times, he says seeing his wife battle cancer is harder than war. Through it all, she has been a rock.

“Just seeing her staying steady and everything. That helps me out so much,” Ron said.

Jean is determined she will beat this.

“It’s not necessarily a death sentence, like years ago,” she said.

Jean’s final chemo treatment will be this Thursday at the Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Passavant. Then, in March, she will get another PET scan to determine whether she will require more treatment.

With luck already on her side, she and Ron soldier on and keep the faith.

“I have a lot of faith in my doctors. I have a lot of faith in the science. And I have a lot of faith, period.”