Larry Stewart’s Brush with Lung Cancer

Larry Stewart is pretty much the last person in the world you would think might develop lung cancer.  He’s never smoked a day in his life.  He works out four or five times a week at the gym.  He and his wife Elaine are the parents of three children and doting grandparents to seven grandchildren ranging in age from three to 17 years.  Larry has been an avid walker since retiring from his 32-year career at Quaker Oats.  

One day, while climbing a flight of stairs at home, the same flight of stairs he’s climbed every day for years, Larry noticed he was feeling out of breath…and he found it odd considering how active he is.  So he called his family doctor, Dr. Namburi, who quickly decided to investigate things a little further.

From his family doctor, Larry was referred to Dr. Lori Whitehead at St. Joseph’s Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health for a closer look at his respiratory system to determine what might be causing this new shortness of breath.

Both Larry and his wife come from scientific backgrounds.  Larry was a trained as a medical laboratory technologist who left healthcare to work in product safety.  Elaine has an advanced certificate in microbiology and worked as a medical laboratory technologist for decades.  During the testing phase of their referral to St. Joe’s, Larry and Elaine began hypothesizing about Larry’s shortness of breath. 

“We figured it could’ve been caused by scar tissue on the lungs they thought…but Larry didn’t have asthma or COPD or any of the respiratory conditions that sometimes lead to scarring of the lungs.  So then we considered whether it might be histoplasmosis…perhaps from years of working in a dust-filled agricultural environment at Quaker.  The last hypothesis we considered was lung cancer…but it just seemed so unlikely…until the moment I saw the scan of his lungs,” says Elaine.

Dr. Whitehead showed Larry and Elaine a CT Scan of his lungs.  On it there was a speculated mass which Elaine knew was a sign of cancer.  While Dr. Whitehead didn’t confirm the diagnosis that day, she made a referral the very next day for Larry to see Dr. Wael Hanna, a thoracic surgeon at St. Joe’s.

“Elaine and I had just booked a trip to Europe to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary and I remember asking Dr. Whitehead if we could still go as I was fairly certain that I couldn’t be dealing with anything too serious based on years of clean living and good health.  She looked at us and simply said, ‘Cancel it.’ That’s when we knew something was very wrong,” Larry recounted.

Dr. Hanna ran more tests and soon confirmed Larry and Elaine’s greatest fear, that Larry was dealing with a cancer of the lung and he needed to act on it quickly.

Earlier that year, Elaine and Larry had read about the Boris family’s $5 million gift to expand the robotic surgery program at St. Joe’s to lung and oral cancer surgeries so when Dr. Hanna told Larry he was a candidate for robotic surgery, both he and Elaine knew what their decision would be.
“We’d read about the robot, and watched the video of the first lung cancer patient operated on by Dr. Hanna.  It was interesting and inspiring to witness this cutting-edge technology and Dr. Hanna was confident my surgery would be a success.  So we said yes, let’s do this robotically.  I wanted every advantage possible to conquer this disease,” says Larry. 

Conquer is an apt descriptor, too.  Larry was out of bed and walking around just one day after a portion of his lung was removed through robotic surgery.  Following surgery, Larry had a homecare nurse every day for a week or so, to make sure he was on the road to recovery.  Recently during one of his follow-up visits to an oncologist, Larry was told he was the healthiest lung cancer patient the doctor had ever seen.

“I know it may sound odd, but throughout this whole experience, I can’t help but feel…lucky.  Lucky that I went to my doctor to check on my shortness of breath; lucky that I was referred to kind, capable doctors like Dr. Whitehead and Dr. Hanna; lucky that I was at St. Joe’s…one of only a handful of hospitals in the country with a surgical robot; lucky that I caught my lung cancer in time to beat it.”

Part of the reason why Larry and Elaine felt lucky was because of St. Joseph’s innovative Lung Diagnostic Assessment Program (LDAP).  LDAP brings together physicians, surgeons, and healthcare providers from St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, the Niagara Health System, and Brantford General Hospital and together they strive to provide coordinated state-of-the-art care to patients in need. Because of the high level of integration, patients receive speedier diagnostics, quick patient referrals, along with the legacy of compassionate care that is the hallmark of St. Joe’s.  

Perhaps the only constructive feedback Larry had was regarding the stigma that surrounds lung cancer.  He was surprised to see how many people, including healthcare professionals, assumed that he was a smoker. 

“Their first question was always ‘So, when did you quit smoking?’ and as someone who had never smoked a day in his life…I found it a little offensive.  They seemed to imply that I had given myself this disease.  I think the question should always be “Have you ever smoked?” so that the patient, who is already facing an often-scary cancer diagnosis, isn’t made to feel as though they are to blame for their illness.” 

Larry Stewart was part of St. Joseph’s Health System’s Integrated Comprehensive Care Project through the Lung Diagnostic Assessment Program. The project follows lung-cancer patients from diagnosis through to treatment and recovery at home by wrapping the healthcare system around the needs of the patient.  It’s unique to St. Joe’s and it’s currently a pilot project being funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.  By sharing his story, Larry hopes to raise awareness of the growing prevalence of lung cancer, the wonders of robotic surgery, and the exceptional care available right here in Hamilton…right here at St. Joe’s.




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