Beaufort Memorial’s Living Well Blog brings health and wellness to Lowcountry living.

Breathing Easy

Posted by Living Well Team on Jan 24, 2018 2:00:00 PM

mike_binkowski.jpgThanks to Beaufort Memorial’s new low-dose lung cancer screening program, Mike Binkowski discovered his lung cancer early, when it was easily treatable.

Mike Binkowski knew all the health risks of smoking cigarettes. His primary care physician had been urging him to kick the habit since he began seeing him for annual checkups more than a decade ago. It was the same spiel every year.

“I was pretty frank with him,” says board-certified internal medicine specialist Steven Kessel, M.D., of Beaufort Memorial Primary Care. “I told him he wasn’t going to live long if he kept on smoking.”

The admonitions were well received, but Binkowski mostly ignored them. “I tried to quit a couple of times,” the 68-year-old Beaufort resident says. “Chantix and the patch didn’t work for me. Truth is, I wasn’t committed to the idea.”

Even a heart attack and triple bypass surgery didn’t motivate him to break his 50-year addiction. The former Marine and longtime police officer was undeterred—until a tiny spot appeared on his lung. The 1.6-centimeter lesion was discovered on a low-dose CT lung cancer screening scan taken last May 31 at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. A biopsy confirmed it was lung cancer.

Fortunately, the stage 1 tumor was found early, before it had spread to lymph nodes or other parts of his body. It also had a beneficial side effect. “Fear,” says Binkowski, now a part-time security officer at Dataw Island. “That’s what finally got me to quit.”

The New Jersey native was 16 years old when he tried his first cigarette. “Back then, everyone in the movies smoked,” Binkowski recalls. “There were no warnings on cigarettes. All my friends were doing it, so I did it, too.”

He smoked during the four years he served with the Marine Corps military police and stepped up his cigarette habit even more during his 25 years with the Beaufort Police Department. “Two of the main food groups for cops are nicotine and caffeine,” Binkowski quips. “I’d light up a cigarette as soon as I got in my car or sat down for a cup of coffee.”

He cut back to one pack a day after retiring from the force at the age of 55. And after his heart attack, he began having annual checkups. Given his smoking history, Kessel sent him for a chest X-ray every couple of years. The test can detect larger, more advanced lung tumors, but it is far less effective at catching early-stage tumors.

In 2011, a large national study found that low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) provides more detailed pictures than X-rays and is better at finding small abnormal areas in the lungs. It is the only diagnostic medical test clinically proven to reduce lung cancer mortality in current and former heavy smokers.

Both the American College of Radiology and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommend annual low-dose CT screenings if you are 55 to 77 years of age, currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years, and have a smoking history of at least 30 “pack years,” meaning that you smoked a pack a day for 30 years, or two packs a day for 15, or any other combination of packs and years totaling 30.

Last spring, Beaufort Memorial introduced a lung cancer screening program designed to provide a faster pathway to lung cancer detection and treatment. The program has been named a Screening Center of Excellence by the Lung Cancer Alliance for providing safe, high-quality LDCT screening for lung cancer.

When Binkowski told Kessel he didn’t feel right at his annual checkup last May, the primary care physician decided to refer him for a LDCT screening. “This is a guy who helped wrestle an alligator out of a lake,” Kessel says. “He’s a tough nut. He’s not going to complain about something minor.”

The scan revealed a spot on the right upper lobe of his lung. Within days, Binkowski was scheduled for a needle biopsy. The test confirmed it was cancer. Less than a week later, he met with board-certified medical oncologist Majd Chahin, M.D., of Beaufort Memorial Medical Oncology, who had treated Binkowski’s wife for a metastatic melanoma.

After a PET scan showed the cancer had not spread beyond the lung, Chahin recommended that Binkowski undergo a minimally invasive lung resection at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Beaufort Memorial’s partnering tertiary hospital. He would not need chemotherapy or radiation once the affected portion of the lung was removed.

“I have a very strong faith and had confidence in Dr. Chahin,” Binkowski says. “I took the same approach I did as a police officer. If you have a problem, you attack it aggressively. You don’t back away.”

The surgery was performed last June 30, just one month after the cancer was detected with the low-dose CT scan.

“They really worked fast to get it diagnosed and treated,” Binkowski says. “It made me feel good they were actively and aggressively treating it.”

He gave up cigarettes the day he was diagnosed with lung cancer and hasn’t picked one up since. Now, when he meets his friends or son for coffee at the Huddle House, he pops a mint in his mouth if he feels the urge to light up. Crisis averted, he’s back enjoying his favorite hobby—cross-stitching.

“Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like something a cop would do,” says Binkowski, who carries his cross-stitching projects with him in a briefcase. “But I can listen to audiobooks when I’m cross-stitching and block the world out. It’s a great stress reliever.”

Learn more about cancer care at Beaufort Memorial.

Each year, an estimated 156,000 people die from lung cancer, making it the leading cancer killer of both men and women in the United States. The biggest risk factor for the disease is smoking.

Scientists have found annual screenings using a low-dose chest CT can reduce the risk of lung cancer death by 20 percent in current and former heavy smokers, compared with those who were screened using a chest X-ray. LDCT is quick and painless and exposes patients to a minimal amount of radiation. It can be performed while you are fully clothed and requires no medication, needles or dietary restrictions. The only requirement is that you hold your breath for about six seconds while the chest scan is being taken.

“Less than 24 hours after you have the test, the results will be sent to your physician,” says Matthew Hurtt, Beaufort Memorial’s advanced imaging manager and LDCT screening program coordinator. “One in five patients will have a screening that requires further studies.”

Medicare Part B covers the cost of the test once per year. Most health insurance companies also will pay for it. Beaufort Memorial offers competitive pricing for the service and will work with patients who are uninsured or have a healthcare plan that doesn’t cover the test.

For more information on lung cancer screening click here or call (843) 522-LUNG (5864) between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, to speak with our program coordinator.

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