Bonnie Addario felt uneasy about her doctors' plan to cut her open to determine if the suspicious mark on her left lung was cancer. If they found cancer while doing the biopsy, they wanted to operate immediately while she was still under anesthesia.
"I just didn't feel comfortable going into surgery and not knowing how I was going to come out," she said.
That's when Addario read about a new avenue for lung-cancer treatment. An article in the San Mateo County Times on Nov. 12, 2003, touted a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Sequoia Hospital and UCSF Medical Center for difficult cases. Addario thought maybe this could save her life.
So far, it has.
"Had I gone the other route, I wouldn't be sitting here today," said Addario, a vibrant 57-year-old who walks briskly around her neighborhood every day. "There was a sense of urgency in (the Sequoia/UCSF) group of doctors. It was serendipity that article was in the San Mateo County Times."
Addario is among a growing number of people who are surviving lung cancer, the most lethal form of cancer, and among those in the county benefiting from new partnerships among hospitals. A new health report found mortality rates dropped for lung cancer in San Mateo County between 1990 and 2001. Still, about 3,800 died from lung cancer during that time, more than triple the number killed by breast cancer, according to the 2004 Community Assessment: Health & Quality of Life in SanMateo County.
Though Addario smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 25 years, her lung cancer also had a genetic component: Her aunt, uncle and grandfather all suffered from the disease.
Addario was one of the lucky ones.
Because the tumor was in an unusual location, close to important arteries that branch off from the aorta, she felt pain across her chest in the fall of 2003.
Addario said lung cancer is often fatal, because it usually doesn't trigger pain that would prompt a doctor's visit. She went to a doctor about the pain, but after he misdiagnosed it and the pain continued, she decided to have a full-body scan.
The scan revealed a suspicious white mark the size of a walnut on her lung, but it was close to her aortic arch a very delicate area and it would have been dangerous for doctors to biopsy it without opening up her chest, something that made her nervous.
After reading the article about the Sequoia-UCSF parternship in the Times, Addario called Sequoia and, within an hour or so, got a call back from Dr. Melissa Lim, medical director for Sequoia's Redwood Pulmonary Medical Association.
Lim had initiated the new partnership with Dr. David Jablons, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at UCSF, to work on very difficult lung cancer cases and allow patients to benefit from the best in training, technology and research from both institutions.
The collaboration allows patients who might normally be referred to UCSF to be seen for chemotherapy, surgery and follow-up care at Sequoia, which is just blocks from Addario's home. Lim agreed to take Addario immediately, and she tried a procedure never done at Sequoia to biopsy the tumor: She sent a small scope and camera down her esophagus to reach the area.
"Her tumor was such a special situation," Lim said.
The treatment involved massive chemotherapy and radiation at Sequoia beginning at Christmas 2003 to pull the tumor away from the arteries to make surgery easier. During the surgery at UCSF on St. Patrick's Day 2004, she was given a blast of radiation while her chest was cut open, another unusual treatment.
"She's a golden example of how collaboration works," Lim said. "Sequoia wants to be a center of excellence in lung cancer therapy, and the goal is to have the collaboration with UCSF help bring us there."
But when she regained her strength, Addario wanted to do more to thank the people who saved her life. A determined grandmother of six who rose from secretary to president at a local petroleum distributor in just eight years, she knew how to be an effective leader.
She now sits on the board of the Sequoia Hospital Foundation and on the advisory board for the thoracic oncology program at UCSF, raising funds, giving speeches and writing letters for both organizations.
JoAnn Kemist, Sequoia's vice president of community relations, said Addario has shared her experience with the community as part of her work on the board. "There are often eyes that well up," Kemist said. "It's a pretty dramatic story."
Kemist said Addario was able to take advantage of the partnerships that Sequoia tries to forge throughout the Peninsula. "We have a core value of collaboration," Kemist said. "There aren't enough dollars to go around [in health care], if you don't collaborate, the system is going to fall apart."
Addario's been cancer-free for a year, and after two years, it will be time to break out the champagne, she said. After five years, she added, "You're in real good shape."
For Addario, who is a spiritual person, her experience has a deeper meaning.
"My goal, out of all of this I went through, is to create an increased awareness to be your own advocate for your own well-being," she said. "If I can save one life by creating better awareness, that's what this is all about."
Story first published in the San Mateo Times on April 12, 2005. Reprinted with permission.