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Gov. Ivey’s lung cancer caught early, an exception in Alabama

Nationally, cancer death rates are on the decline, especially lung cancer. Locally, not so much.
Nationally, cancer death rates are on the decline, especially lung cancer. Locally, not so much.
Updated: Sep. 23, 2019 at 5:03 PM EDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - On Monday, Gov. Kay Ivey made her first public appearance since beginning treatment for lung cancer. It was an event to commemorate Alabama’s connection to the 2019 White House Christmas ornament.

Ivey, 74, said she’s feeling fine and is thankful for the prayers and support she’s received. She’s also thankful her cancer a “tiny, isolated malignancy,” was caught early.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey answers questions about her cancer treatment following an event in Ozark...
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey answers questions about her cancer treatment following an event in Ozark to commemorate the state's connection to the 2019 White House Christmas ornament.(Source: WSFA 12 News)

“I discovered the tiny spot on my lung during a routine exam, which is good news, because I am one of the fortunate ones where this was discovered early, and it is very treatable,” she said.

While her prognosis is good, that’s not the case for the majority. Of the estimated 4,000 Alabamians who will hear the words “lung cancer” this year, nearly 2,800, or approximately 70 percent, are not expected to survive, according to Ginny Campbell, the Alabama government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, or ACS CAN.

With earlier detection, more Alabamians with lung cancer could survive.

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama has significantly higher lung cancer and mortality rates than the national average. ADPH says it’s the leading cause of cancer death, claiming more lives annually than from breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined.

“Sadly, most lung cancers are first found after they have spread widely and are very hard to cure," said Ginny Tucker, Alabama executive director of the American Cancer Society.

That’s why it’s so important to see a doctor for regular checkups.

The American Lung Association says only about 19 percent of Alabama cases are caught early - when the survival rate is high. Nearly half of the state’s cases aren’t caught until the late stages of the disease. By that point, survival rates nationally plummet to less than five percent.

“In recent years, doctors have found a test that can be used to screen for lung cancer in people at high risk of the disease,” Tucker explained. “ACS encourages everyone who qualifies to take advantage of this test since it can help find some cancers early, which can lower the risk of dying from the disease.”

The spot on Gov. Ivey’s lung was found by her family doctor during a routine checkup several weeks ago. She was then referred to another doctor for additional testing. After the results came back, she was given several treatment options.

“Governor Ivey has opted for the least invasive treatment which has an excellent cure rate,” said Dr. William P. Saliski, Jr., with Montgomery Pulmonary Consultants. "I expect her to make a full recovery.”

Campbell said statistics on the state’s lung cancer rates are “distressing” but added that "learning of Gov. Ivey’s cancer diagnosis reinvigorates our efforts to advocate for bold public policies that promote cancer prevention, early detection of cancer, and expanding access to quality, affordable health care.”

Ivey started treatment at UAB Hospital in Birmingham, the day after making the news public. The outpatient procedure, to put in markers to target the radiation, was done Friday and the governor returned home to Montgomery to rest.

She has promised her cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment wouldn’t slow down her official duties. She was on stage, as planned, and said afterward that “we’ll zap it out with some radiation and be done with it.”

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