For Former Smoker, a Yearly Lung Screening Caught Cancers Early. Her Message: Don’t Wait

Elyssa Barbaro was a smoker for more than 50 years. In 2016, she joined the Mount Sinai Lung Screening Program when invited to sign up by Barbara Schultz, MD, Associate Professor of Pulmonology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. And, she’s very grateful she did.

Quitting smoking long seemed impossible to Elyssa.  Every year, she tried and just wasn’t able to do it.  However, joining the Lung Screening Program established by Claudia Henschke, PhD, MD, Professor of Radiology at Icahn Mount Sinai was something she says she felt great and confident about doing. In the program, patients have a yearly check-up that includes a CT computed tomography scan.

In fall 2018, Elyssa had been coughing a lot, but a chest X-ray taken in late November did not show any issues. Turns out the coughing was due to seasonal allergies. However, on December 2018 a CT scan found Elyssa had two very small but concerning nodules—one on each lung. A biopsy was recommended and performed by David Yankelevitz, MD, Professor of Radiology and Director of the Lung Biopsy Service at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The biopsy found adenocarcinoma, a form of lung cancer.

The carcinoma was removed from her left lung by Andrea Wolf, MD, Associate Professor of Thoracic Surgery at Icahn Mount Sinai, in February 2019. Six months later Dr. Wolf removed the nodule from her right lung, which was also an early-stage adenocarcinoma.

In June 2020, as a result of Elyssa’s continued follow-up and regular CT scans, the doctors found that another previously seen nodule that had increased in size and required further testing. That November, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan confirmed the enlarging nodule in her lung that was likely another cancer, but to everyone’s surprise, the PET also discovered a nodule in her breast that had not been seen on her mammography just five months earlier. Elyssa had her third curative lung cancer surgery with Dr. Wolf in December 2020, and breast cancer surgery in February 2021.

She was concerned about having surgery during the pandemic, but she was thankful for the care she received from Mount Sinai doctors and staff. “I am so grateful to Dr. Schultz and Dr. Wolf. They have become my partners on this journey and are always there for me,” says Elyssa.

Elyssa is very grateful for the Lung Screening Program, as it found the three separate lung cancers at stage 1, meaning when they were small and localized to one area, and led to finding an early breast cancer. Elyssa had established friendships with many smokers as for many years they gathered outside their office building to take a smoke break. After she was diagnosed, Elyssa emailed the many smokers she knew urging them to sign up for a lung screening program to get checked. Catching cancer early is key, she says.

After her last surgery, Elyssa, who had retired after working more than 35 years in banking and insurance, went right back to her normal life. She spent time with family and friends, read many books and traveled.

Elyssa’s advice to others is simple: “Getting a screening is easier and less painful than going to the dentist.” She encourages people, especially former smokers, not to wait for symptoms, to get screened as soon as possible, and join a Lung Screening Program that regularly monitors their lungs.

To view a video about Elyssa’s health journey, click here.

To read more patient stories, click here.