June 30, 2023

Lung cancer survivor received ‘pioneering’ care

Doctor and mother of 3 Susan Brim received top-notch care after her lung cancer diagnosis.

Dr. Brim assumed the pain in her chest was caused by an infection.

The pain in Susan Brim’s chest started in December 2017. A mother of 3 and a physician at the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center, she knew something wasn’t quite right. No matter what she did, the discomfort persisted.

Her doctor used a type of imaging called a computed tomography, or CT, scan and found a large area in her lung that looked abnormal. Dr. Brim and her doctors assumed it was an infection — after all, she was young and a nonsmoker. But initial tests didn’t show an infection. Her doctors recommended a lung biopsy.

The biopsy was scheduled at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. It revealed lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

“It was a shock,” Dr. Brim recalled. “But my pulmonologist referred me to Jeffrey Velotta, a thoracic surgeon who heads the specialty care center for thoracic surgery in Oakland.”

Improving cancer survival with a regionalized approach

Dr. Brim is one of more than 3,000 patients in Northern California who has benefited from Kaiser Permanente’s innovative approach to thoracic cancer surgery: All thoracic surgeries take place in 1 of 4 specialty care centers, located in Oakland, Modesto, South Sacramento, and Santa Clara. Any Northern California patient can be referred to these centers.

Kaiser Permanente is one of the first health care organizations in the country to use this regionalized approach.

“We picked the centers with the highest number of board-certified thoracic surgeons, where we were already doing a large number of minimally invasive lung cancer operations,” Dr. Velotta explained. “This approach has improved 1- and 3-year survival rates for our lung cancer patients.”

Minimally invasive lung cancer operations reduce pain and recovery time by eliminating the need to cut through the patient’s ribs or breastbone. Instead, surgeons make several small cuts between the ribs. They insert a tiny video camera and small surgical tools through these openings.

This technique is known as video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery and has been shown to contribute to lower complication rates, less pain, and higher quality of life than traditional open surgery.

Easing recovery after lung cancer surgery

Dr. Velotta used video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery to remove half of Dr. Brim’s lung. The following evening, Dr. Brim was able to go home to her family.

“While the recovery was difficult, being able to be at home made it so much better,” she said.

Within a couple of months, Dr. Brim was back at work part-time and slowly resuming her usual activities. Within 6 months, she felt close to fully recovered.

And since her doctors caught the mass at an early stage, Dr. Brim is now cancer-free.

“I am so grateful for my experience with Dr. Velotta and the entire Oakland thoracic surgery team,” she said. “They saved my life. As both a patient and a physician, I have a huge appreciation for the pioneering work they are doing to take care of patients like me.”

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.