An unexpected cancer diagnosis

By The Health News Team | November 30, 2023
Annie Tibbets of San Diego with her dog, Madera

Annie with her dog, Madera.

September means back to school for many. But for a San Diego-based third grade teacher, it meant recovering from the unexpected.

Annie Tibbets, a mother of three in her 50s, describes her lifestyle as healthy and active. She’s a nonsmoker and avid Pilates enthusiast who plays pickleball.

She seemed far from having any serious health issues until a nagging pain in her right shoulder changed everything in May. After speaking with her primary care physician and undergoing X-rays for what she thought was a torn rotator cuff, an abnormal growth known as a nodule was found on her upper right lung.

Annie’s physician ordered an endobronchial ultrasound-guided transbronchial needle aspiration — a minimally invasive procedure used to diagnose lung conditions. During the procedure, a tissue sample was taken from the nodule in Annie’s lung to help determine if cancer was present. The results of the biopsy confirmed Annie had stage 1 adenocarcinoma.

Although adenocarcinoma is the most common type of lung cancer in nonsmokers and is more common in women than men, Annie’s diagnosis was still unexpected. She lived a healthy lifestyle and has no family history of cancer.

“They were words that I never thought I’d hear,” says Annie. “I thought to myself that this can’t be my ending.”

Support and care at Sharp

Annie was referred to the Sharp Memorial Hospital Heart and Lung Clinic, where she was put at ease by Dr. Soud Sediqe, a board-certified pulmonologist with Sharp Community Medical Group. The Advanced Pulmonary Program within the Heart and Lung Clinic focuses on lung cancer screening, incidental lung nodule management, and management of other pulmonary conditions, such as chronic obstructive disease (COPD), long-haul COVID, asthma and interstitial lung disease.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports lung nodules are found in approximately 1.6 million Americans annually, most nodules are noncancerous. However, continuous monitoring of the nodules is critical. Using leading-edge technology like endobronchial ultrasound-guided transbronchial needle aspiration and robotic-assisted bronchoscopy, the Heart and Lung Clinic is designed for individuals like Annie who need prompt, comprehensive care and monitoring with timely follow-ups.

Dr. Sediqe reassured Annie that her diagnosis was not the end of her story — just the beginning of her journey back to optimal health. Her nodule was small, and she was young and healthy. He even encouraged her to go on her planned summer European vacation.

“Like I do with all my patients, I urged Annie to continue pushing forward and live her best life,” Dr. Sediqe says.

The importance of screening

According to the CDC, each year in the United States, approximately 10% to 20% of lung cancers develop in people who’ve never smoked or smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime. For those at a higher risk, such as individuals ages 50 to 80 with a 20-pack-year history of smoking who currently smoke or recently quit, Dr. Sediqe advises a low-dose computerized tomography (CT) screening that can help detect lung cancer early when it’s most treatable.

“I’m glad Annie listened to her body and got care when she felt symptoms arise,” says Dr. Sediqe. “It’s fortunate that we caught her adenocarcinoma before it spread to other parts of her body.”

State-of-the-art technology and treatment

In early August 2023, Annie had a robotic-assisted lobectomy performed by Dr. Craig Larson, a cardiothoracic surgeon affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital, to remove a lobe from her right lung that contained the cancer. The minimally invasive surgery involved a small, 3D high-definition camera placed through five small incisions in between the ribs to provide a magnified view of the chest cavity.

The robotic instruments, which allow for more precise movements, are controlled by Dr. Larson to remove lung tissue and lymph nodes surrounding the nodule in case the cancer spread to the surrounding tissue. The benefits of robotic-assisted surgery include less blood loss, faster recovery, significant reduction in narcotics use and fewer complications.

After a successful surgery, Annie was able to return home the next day. Dr. Larson confirmed that the 22 lymph nodes that were removed were negative for cancer. Annie will continue to be monitored for five years, during which she will receive CT scans to ensure no cancer reoccurs.

Back in action

Two months post-surgery, Annie remains active. Dr. Larson advises his patients to continue moving throughout recovery to prevent pneumonia and keep their lungs healthy and strong.

Annie says she has enjoyed picking up her pickleball paddle again and returning to her classroom.

“There were posters hung in my classroom from all the grade levels at school welcoming me back,” she says. “It was a great surprise, and I am indeed back with no end in sight.”

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