Spotlight: Gayle Zinda, Survivor

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UW Carbone Cancer Center


Dr. Nizar Jarjour, UW Health pulmonologist, and Gayle Zinda

Gayle Zinda is that rarest of birds – a long-term lung cancer survivor.


But lung cancer specialists at the UW Carbone Cancer Center are hopeful that with both private insurance and Medicare now paying for CT scans for many former and current smokers, they will be having more success stories like Zinda's.


She was diagnosed via a happy coincidence – a CT scan after unrelated surgery back in 2006 showed a suspicious spot. After having lung cancer confirmed, she had the lower lobe of her left lung removed in a surgery at University of Wisconsin Hospital.


"Gayle was very lucky to have discovered her cancer so early," says her pulmonologist, Dr. Nizar Jarjour, a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "It's gratifying to see how well she's done."


In the nine years since, she's welcomed six grandchildren into the world and danced at the weddings of children and stepchildren. She also travelled all over the country telling former smokers that they should have CT scans.


"I'm very grateful to God," says Zinda, who lived on Lake Kegonsa near Stoughton before moving to Florida this past winter with her husband, Michael. "People think lung cancer is a death sentence, and for some it is, but it doesn't have to be if you catch it early. I'm a big advocate of CT scanning."


Lung cancer is one of the most lethal of cancers, killing more Americans every year than colon, prostate and breast cancers combined.


"The problem is that once patients begin to show symptoms, the cancer has usually begun to spread," says Dr. Jeffrey Kanne, chief of thoracic imaging at UW Hospital. "If we can find it early enough, lung cancer can be cured via surgery."


The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover CT scans for high-risk patients and in February 2015, Medicare began doing the same. Kanne says that patients need to be referred for screening by their physicians.


Smokers and former smokers should be screened if they are:

  • Between 55 and 77 years old, or up to age 80 with private insurance
  • Smokers or former smokers who quit within the past 15 years
  • In the high-risk group who smoked for 30 "pack-years" or more. To calculate pack years, multiply the number of packs per day by the number of years of smoking. So a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years both equal 30 pack-years.
  • No symptoms of lung cancer

Kanne says the greatest risk of the screening is finding a "false positive," which means something that looks like cancer, but isn't. About one in four people will need to be re-screened, and about 95 percent of what is found is not lung cancer.


Zinda's pulmonologist Dr. Jarjour notes that it is important for patients to consult with their physicians during a shared decision-making session, and to have their scans read by physicians skilled in cancer diagnosis. Other conditions, such as common fungal infections, can lead to scars in the lungs. A patient and doctor should decide together how the patient will proceed if more tests, a biopsy or surgery are indicated. Not all patients are healthy enough for surgery, which can involve taking out a lobe of the lung, as it did in Zinda's case.


"This is a very serious surgery and you need to be in expert hands," Jarjour says. "She was very healthy and had quit smoking years before, which helped her surgery be successful."