Annual scans caught his cancer early, giving this Surfside Beach man more time with family

October 10, 2022
a man poses in his living room
Gary Davis, a longtime smoker, wasn't really surprised when an annual lung scan picked up cancer. But he was surprised by how quickly he was able to recover after a robotic surgery. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Gary and Susan Davis have built a lifetime together – and it all started because of the apartment that Gary chose to rent as a young man.

“My mom picked him out,” Susan Davis said. “He was living in the apartment that my parents managed, and I was in college. My mom said, ‘Come meet this nice, sweet boy,’ and here we are this many years later.”

That was 40 years ago. They had kids, then grandkids and now they’re enjoying retirement in Surfside Beach, South Carolina.

But there was one thing that always bugged Susan – Gary’s smoking.

“He always told me when we got married, he’d quit smoking. But that never happened,” she said.

a man and woman sit on chairs outside their home 
Susan and Gary Davis at their home. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Gary picked up smoking in the Army, before he met Susan. In civilian life, as a factory representative for industrial air conditioning systems that serviced, among others, MUSC, most of Gary’s co-workers smoked.

Many times, he tried to quit smoking, but he couldn't break free from the nicotine, he said. He always ended up smoking again.

Though Gary couldn’t follow through on that promise to quit, he did something else incredibly important – he followed his doctor’s advice to get yearly lung scans.

Nationally, only about 6% of people who are eligible actually get lung cancer screenings. MUSC Hollings Cancer Center has been working to increase access to screenings by bringing this service to MUSC Health’s regional hospitals and by increasing awareness and expanding navigation services.

To be eligible for screening, a person needs to be:

  • Between the ages of 50 and 77, and;
  • Be a current or former smoker who quit in the last 15 years, and;
  • Have at least a 20 pack-year history (one pack a day for 20 years; two packs a day for 10 years; etc.).

The procedure, which uses low-dose computed tomography (CT), is fairly simple. The patient lays on a table while the CT machine takes an X-ray of the chest. Radiologists then look at the images for suspicious shadows.

Gary’s doctors first saw a spot on his lungs in 2019. In 2021, they observed that the spot had started to change. They referred him to Hollings, where he and Susan met with thoracic surgeon Ian Bostock Rosenzweig, M.D.

Bostock first ordered a PET scan to get a better look at the spot, then followed up with a biopsy. The biopsy confirmed that Gary had cancer.

For Gary, the news didn’t come as a surprise.

“You know, that was my choice to smoke. I can’t blame anybody but me,” he said. “My doctors told me every year – every year.”

a man and woman sit on the brick front steps of a house with a girl between them and a boy in each lap and an inflatable Santa Claus behind them 
Gary and Susan Davis with their grandchildren – a big motivating factor for him to quit smoking. Photo provided

In fact, Gary was still smoking when he first met with Bostock. Bostock emphasized to him, as he does to all his patients, the importance of quitting smoking before his surgery.

“There have been studies that say that, even if you’ve been smoking for a long time, if you quit smoking for three weeks before your operation, your risk of a complication from the operation related to your smoking goes down to that of a person who’s never smoked,” Bostock said. “I really emphasize that if they give me three solid weeks of no smoking, we can get them through major surgery without having increased risk. And then once they quit for three weeks, the majority of my patients – I would say 80% of them – just never pick up a cigarette again because they realize they can do it.”

Bostock said he tells patients that they can get free nicotine patches, gum or lozenges through the S.C. Tobacco Quitline. Researchers at Hollings have also developed a Tobacco Treatment Program and regularly run clinical trials testing new methods to help people to quit smoking.

For Gary, Bostock’s push aligned with a bit of divine providence. He had been trying to get varenicline, the generic version of Chantix, for some time without success. When he returned home from his first appointment with Bostock, the medication was waiting in his mailbox.

a man and woman stand on a hill in front of a large cross 
Gary and Susan Davis at the Cross on the Hill in Pennsylvania during a recent family trip. Photo provided

“I figured that must have been a sign, saying, ‘You better quit.’ And I did. I haven't smoked since. And believe me, I occasionally still want one really bad,” he said.

Bostock recommended robotic surgery to remove the right lower lobe of Gary’s lung, which would account for about a quarter of his lung function. Robotic surgery is minimally invasive, he said, and the Hollings team uses it in about 80% of these cases.

Gary and Susan had lots of questions for Bostock during their meeting.

“I had a stack of questions,” Susan said. Their daughter-in-law is a pharmacist at another cancer center, so she prepared them with everything they should ask. Bostock answered them all, Susan said.

“He was fabulous. I never felt rushed. He answered all my questions, and he was appreciative of the questions that I had,” she said.

The one thing that she hadn’t prepared questions on was the use of robotic surgery. And in fact, the speed of the entire process was a bit of a surprise to the couple.

“I had surgery on a Monday, and I was back home in Surfside by 6 o’clock Tuesday afternoon. Once I walked out of the hospital, we went to a grocery store and bought some cookies for the nurses,” he said.

Gary and Susan praised the nurses, techs, front desk staff and concierge for their friendliness and helpfulness. The front desk particularly put them at ease, Susan said.

“From the moment we walked in, and she took our information – and they were busy – we immediately relaxed. That was from the moment we stepped in the door. She was fantastic. Just very helpful, very calm,” Susan said.

Back home after the surgery, the Davises were amazed at Gary’s quick recovery.

“In fact, it was so simple that I actually got a little panicked about it because there was no wound care,” Susan said. “I mean, I expected to be doing bandages and ointments and antibiotics. There was none of that.”

Bostock said that Gary’s recovery was facilitated by the pain management protocols that the team follows.

“We use something called cryotherapy that applies a very cold temperature to the nerve bundles, so it keeps the patient’s chest wall pretty numb for about four to six weeks. This allows them to recover much faster and easier,” Bostock said. “We use a very protocolized pain regimen as well that emphasizes the use of anti-inflammatory medications, Tylenol and muscle relaxants rather than narcotics, which also helps the patients recover faster.”

Gary felt so good that he wanted to go to his men’s group at church on the Thursday following surgery, but Susan wasn’t prepared to let him go so soon. However, the couple was able to take their annual Pawleys Island vacation with their grandchildren two weeks later.

seen from behind, a man sits at a dock fishing with a small boy on either side of him 
Gary Davis was surprised to find that he felt well enough to go fishing with his grandsons within a couple of weeks of his surgery.

Gary said that friends and fellow church members were surprised to see him up and about – especially when he told them he’d had part of his lung removed. He, too, was surprised to find himself fishing with his grandkids so soon after surgery.

He’s thankful that his annual scans caught the cancer early, giving him more time with his three grandchildren.

“They’re growing as fast as we can turn around,” he said. “Another good reason why I quit smoking was to watch them grow up.”