Sandi’s Story

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When Sandi Benson was diagnosed with lung cancer, she was not afraid.

That’s partly because of who she is – a positive, resilient and innate fighter with a spiritual resolve that leaves her at-ease when life throws a curve ball.

But it’s also because of where she would take on the No. 1 cancer killer of women: at Hoag Family Cancer Institute, a national leader in diagnosing and treating the disease that comprises more than 220,000 new cases nationwide every year.

“I was not scared because I knew I was going to the Hoag team and I have so much confidence in their Cancer Center,” Benson said. “The diagnosis didn’t blow me away. I just dealt with it and said, ‘Let’s get going on this.’”

Benson learned she had lung cancer after a routine physical uncovered a separate health issue – a benign tumor growing underneath the muscles in her back.

The 68-year-old returned to the doctor several months later when her benign tumor started causing pain.

A CT scan revealed something of greater concern.

“They found a spot, smaller than a dime in diameter, that looked like cancer on my lungs,” she said. “That’s how we found it.”

Benson was subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer on July 25, 2015.

A former smoker who quit years ago and now lives a healthy life, Benson said she had no signs or symptoms that signaled lung cancer.

“I didn’t cough, I didn’t have shortness of breath; I’m really very healthy,” she said. “I was told my past smoking might have had something to do with it.”

She was introduced to thoracic surgeon and Lung Cancer Program Director, Daryl Pearlstein, M.D., and said she immediately felt reassured.

“He really is caring and kind. He listens to you and has time for you,” Benson said. “He had the most sincere bedside manner and explained everything to me. He was with me every step of the way.”

She first took on six weeks of chemo and radiation therapies before undergoing surgery on December 28, 2015.

Dr. Pearlstein told Benson he would have to remove the upper lobe of her left lung.

“I have had a lot of surgeries at Hoag and I’ve never been afraid because they are the best of the best,” Benson said. “Out of all the surgeons I’ve ever had, and I’ve had wonderful surgeons, Dr. Pearlstein is probably the most gifted. He is my champion.”

Benson’s positive experience was rounded out with a handful of other skilled Hoag physicians and staff members, including Radiation Oncologist Dr. Craig Cox, Palliative Medicine Specialist, to assist with symptom management, Dr. Vincent Nguyen, and Clinical Nurse Navigator Lilian Reed, RNC.

Depth of experience and commitment to patient-centered care have established Hoag Family Cancer Institute as a national champion in treating lung cancer, offering patients streamlined access to individual-specific treatment options.

For every stage of lung cancer, Hoag patients consistently achieve better outcomes than the national average. Hoag’s five-year survival rate is nearly double that of the national average, which is a testament to the expert medical team, state-of-the-art technology and integrated support services that make up the program.

After surgery, Benson went home to recover, and then began a two-week round of intense chemotherapy.

She is now cancer-free.

“I hug Dr. Pearlstein every time I see him,” she said. “He saved my life. The whole team at Hoag saved my life.”

Benson now looks forward to spending her summer with her husband, Rick, at their coastal home in Oregon, where she plans to volunteer at a local animal shelter and participate in water aerobics.

But she often thinks about how her cancer was detected — early and by chance.

She wants others to be proactive and not have to rely on the chance that another health issue might lead doctors in discovering something more serious.

“There are a lot of people I have been talking to and telling them to get screened,” Benson said. “Just do it. It’s so important. It will save your life.”

Last year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) approved Medicare coverage of yearly Low-Dose CT Screening for asymptomatic current and former heavy smokers meeting certain eligibility criteria. A prior U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendation also mandates private insurance coverage for eligible patients.

Eligibility criteria are:

  1. Patient must be a current or former smoker, ages 55-77, with at least a 30 pack-year* smoking history.
  1. If a former smoker, the patient must have stopped smoking within the last 15 years.
  1. Patient must have a Lung Cancer Screening Counseling and Shared Decision Making visit with their physician or other health care provider prior to the first screening CT.
  1. Patient must have a written referral form for Lung Cancer Screening.

*Pack years refers to number of packs smoked per day, multiplied by number of years smoked.

“The key to lung cancer treatment is early detection and intervention,” said Dr. Pearlstein, program director for lung cancer. “When lung cancer starts to show symptoms, that often means it has spread, rendering the disease much more difficult to treat. Low-dose CT screening gives our patients the best chance for a successful outcome.”

For more information, call 888-503-3394.