Edward at the lung screen machine
Edward Zielinski's lung cancer was found early enough to treat thanks to the Ontario Lung Cancer Screening Program. He has been cancer-free since September 2019. (Photo: UHN)

In June 2019, Edward Zielinski was diagnosed with Stage 2b lung cancer.

"It was a sharp slap to the face for a guy who's been smoking forever and thinks he's immune to everything," he says. "But, I'm one of the lucky ones."

Edward's cancer was found early enough to operate on and treat. In May 2019, his family doctor introduced him to the Ontario Lung Screening Program (OLSP) at UHN.

"I'm ecstatic. There is no word in the English language to express how grateful I am that I went for that scan – because I'm still here," Edward says. "I'm alive to see another day with my wife and daughter."

Edward is 62 years old and has smoked cigarettes for 40 years. He's diabetic and has faced other health challenges, but was generally feeling well before going for his scan.

"I was fine, I didn't have any symptoms," he says. "I just recognized that I was at significant risk of developing cancer or other diseases because I've been a lifelong smoker."

The risk of lung cancer increases dramatically with the amount smoked, number of years smoked and age of the smoker. To be referred for Ontario's Lung Screening Program for people at high risk, applicants must be aged 55 to 74, and have smoked cigarettes daily for at least 20 years, though not necessarily consecutively. Not everyone who is referred will qualify.

Edward completed a risk assessment over the phone with UHN's patient navigator in June 2019. After discussing his smoking history, health history and family history of cancer, Edward was accepted into the program.

The following week, he went for a lung cancer screening low-dose CT scan (LDCT) at Toronto General Hospital. An LDCT is a quick, painless and non-invasive approach that uses minimal radiation. The actual scan itself takes less than a minute to complete and, the entire appointment takes approximately an hour.

Dr. Michael McInnis, (L), a thoracic radiologist at UHN, explains a low-dose CT scan result to patient Edward Zielinski
Dr. Micheal McInnis, (L), a thoracic radiologist at UHN, explains a low-dose CT scan result to patient Edward Zielinski. (Photo: UHN)

Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer mortality in Ontario. Currently, 70 per cent of lung cancers are found late – at Stage 3 or 4. The Ontario Lung Screening Program is aiming to change that.

"The role of screening is to detect the cancer at an earlier stage when there is a chance for cure," says Dr. Micheal McInnis, thoracic radiologist in the Joint Department of Medical Imaging at UHN.

Edward was referred to a specialist after a suspicious spot was detected in his scan. The good news: his cancer was operable.

Edward had surgery on his left lung to remove the tumour in September 2019 and has since been cancer-free.

Dr. McInnis wishes more Ontarians knew about the program as mortality rates decrease by around 20 per cent when patients get screened.

"Patients who are current or former smokers often have a lot of anxiety about lung cancer – they feel ashamed or guilty – and they are scared to find out the results," says Dr. McInnis. "But, we know that doing annual low-dose CT scans in the appropriate high-risk population reduces lung cancer deaths."

Edward believes that anyone who fits the profile should not hesitate to apply for the program, as it certainly saved his life.

"Stop thinking and make the call. Don't be stupid," he says. "I could've waited six months longer and I might've been at Stage 3. A year later and I could've been at Stage 4 and been buried by now."

Edward spends his time working at a local church in Roncesvalles, collecting coins and stamps, and supporting charitable projects through the Knights of Columbus.

"Every day I wake up and feel blessed," he says. "I'm so glad to be here doing the things I love."

To find out more about the Ontario Lung Cancer Screening Program, visit the website, speak to your family doctor or call 416 340 4154.

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