Innovating cancer care: A new and improved approach to lung cancer treatment


In this article:

  • A new piece of surgical technology called the Ion Robotic Bronchoscopy System is helping to improve lung cancer screening, detection and treatment in eligible patients.

  • Lung cancer has historically been hard to catch early because patients often don’t develop symptoms until the disease has progressed. However, lung cancer is often easy to treat if diagnosed early.

  • New screening guidelines – and tools that support them – are changing the narrative and giving patients a better chance of survival with early detection.

Lung cancer is much easier to treat when caught early. Unfortunately, unlike other types of cancer, patients rarely experience any symptoms of lung cancer until the disease has advanced and is harder to treat. Providence wants to change that course by bringing more accurate, early screening to patients with an innovative piece of technology called the Ion Robotic Bronchoscopy System.

“The team at Providence is working to bring world-class lung cancer care to the Inland Northwest,” says Alexi C. Matousek, M.D., a thoracic surgeon at Providence. “The Ion Robotic Platform is a breakthrough piece of technology that will allow us to diagnose lung cancer earlier than we’ve ever done before and hopefully get more patients in to see us earlier in their journey so that we treat early-stage lung cancer when it has better outcomes.”

The robotic-assisted bronchoscopy is a minimally invasive system with a tiny camera on a cable that can go through the airway into the lungs to check for lung nodules, lesions and other problems. A trained surgeon controls the robot, which allows for even more precise control than traditional methods. Thanks to philanthropic support through the Providence Inland Northwest Foundation, Providence has the first Ion in the region, which will benefit people from Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.

A new, improved approach for lung cancer screening

This technology improves screening because it has several advantages compared to electromagnetic navigational bronchoscopy, which was previously used to biopsy small lung cancer lesions. The Ion has an ultra-thin catheter that can better navigate more distant parts of the lung. It is also more accurate and able to give more detailed positioning while accessing even smaller pulmonary nodules, sometimes as tiny as a pea. "Critically, the detection rate of the Ion is much higher than electromagnetic navigational technology," says Dr. Matousek.

“We used to have to watch small, developing cancers on low-dose CT scans until they grew big enough so that we can reach them through a lung biopsy,” says Dr. Matousek. “This allows even earlier diagnosis and treatment for lung cancer.”

Unfortunately, lung cancer patients, even high-risk patients, have low rates of screening compared to other types of cancers. Lung cancer screening is now recommended by the United States Preventive Services Taskforce for anyone aged 50 to 80 who has smoked one pack a day for the last 20 years, or two packs a day for the last 10 years, and currently smokes cigarettes or has quit within the past 15 years. A pack year is defined as smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for a year. While screening for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer is high (between 60-80% of those eligible), just 6-8% of those eligible for lung cancer screenings actually get screened.

“The tragedy is that there are more lung cancer deaths than deaths from many other common cancers put together, primarily because people get detected late in the disease process,” says Dr. Matousek. “There’s nothing wrong with your body that you can feel. That’s why screening is so important in lung cancer because we can detect nodules when they’re very small and treat them early.”

Despite significant gains in improving cancer screening and building awareness around lung cancer, there is still a stigma around the disease that Providence is working to break.

“The guidelines for cancer screening are shifting as well so we can help patients earlier,” says Jiten D. Patel , M.D., an interventional pulmonologist at Providence. “We have all the facilities, we have the robotics, and we have the technology, but we also need to help people know that cancer is not their fault. Cancer is unforgiving, but we need to forgive ourselves and get screened.”

If you are at high risk of lung cancer, Dr. Patel recommends talking with your provider about a preventive lung cancer screening.

Support for the community, from the community

Given the low rate of lung cancer screening among eligible adults, improving screening and detection of lung cancer has a major benefit for the community.

“The Ion is a critical investment for our health care system because lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in the United States,” says Dr. Matousek. “We can win against lung cancer if we get people in early. And the Ion Platform is all about getting people detected early. That’s why it’s such a key component of making a difference in the lives of our patients.”

While bringing the robotic bronchoscopy system to Providence is helping to improve early detection of cancers, it is just one part of the broader lung cancer program supporting patients throughout the system. Providence is also providing leading-edge lung cancer treatments, including immunotherapy and medical oncology, that have improved survival rates for patients with lung cancer.

“The Ion Platform is a key component of bringing world-class lung cancer care to our patients, but it’s not the only piece,” says Dr. Matousek. “We have a lot of work to do to combat the stigma from smoking and get patients in faster.”  

“I'm thankful for the Providence Inland Northwest Foundation because it has allowed us to bring in technology that’s going to improve access for our community,” says Dr. Patel. “It’s one piece, along with amazing advances in treatment options, of caring for our patients.”

Contributing caregivers

Alexi C. Matousek, M.D., is a thoracic surgeon at Providence.

Jiten D. Patel, M.D., is an interventional pulmonologist at Providence.

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Related resources

E-cigarettes (vaping) can be dangerous for your health

Recognizing and preventing lung cancer for non-smokers

Breathe in, breathe out: Recognizing risk factors for lung cancer

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.