Dr. Rob Headrick, chief of thoracic surgery at CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center, has made it his mission to prove that lung cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence — that even people who are most at risk, such as longtime tobacco users and those with a family history of cancer, can complete treatment and go on to live healthy lives.
Tennessee ranks among the worst states for new lung cancer cases and survival rates, but the disease itself is only part of the issue, he says.
"The medical system has been very difficult for rural people," Dr. Headrick says. "None of them want to die. They just don't know how to get help."
One reason lung cancer is so deadly is that most cases are diagnosed after the disease has spread, making it much harder to cure. If you find it early, lung cancer is "easy to treat," he says. It took visiting his wife's hometown in rural Mississippi, where access to health care is often extremely limited or hours away, to start understanding the root issue, he says.
"It seems like just an easy thing — we'll just go screen everybody. Except nobody was showing up for their screening test. I couldn't understand why nobody's coming for this test that will save their life," he says.
Dr. Headrick and colleagues began designing and building a lung screening program that included a built-from-scratch bus with a portable CT scanner that can quickly detect cancer. The project became known as "Breathe Easy."
In the beginning, Dr. Headrick says he encountered a lot of people who thought it would be too hard to take the expensive medical equipment needed for the screening — which is cumbersome, sensitive to heat and humidity and designed to stay in one place — and transport it on a bus over the rough roads and hills of rural Tennessee.
"When I went to talk to companies about it, the list of why you can't do it was long," he says. "But these aren't impossible problems to overcome."
The "Breathe Easy" bus officially began operations in early 2018. In its first 10 months, the bus traveled to 104 sites and screened 548 patients. For these patients, the average age was 62 years old with average smoking years of 41. Significant pulmonary findings were seen in 51 patients (9%), five lung cancers were identified, and four of them were early stage.
Dr. Rob Headrick
* Role: Chief of cardiothoracic surgery at CHI Memorial
* Background: Dr. Headrick earned an engineering degree from Vanderbilt University before graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis in 1991 and returning to his hometown of Chattanooga for his residency in general surgery. He then went on to complete a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at the Mayo Clinic and earned a master of business administration from the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
* Dream job when you were 10: Astronaut
In addition, non-pulmonary results also were found in 152 (28%) of the individuals screened, with the most common being moderate to severe coronary artery disease in 101 (66%) patients.
The results were published in the July 2020 edition of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery and have garnered the attention of other health systems, as well as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. Dr. Headrick says his next goal is to roll out additional "Breathe Easy" buses across the state, bringing potentially life-saving screening and lung cancer education to all Tennesseans.
"It might have been my idea, but there were so many needed people to challenge the idea to also cheer it on," he says.