Concerned, he and his wife, Carolyn, visited the doctor Nov. 5, 2021. First, they suspected pneumonia. That’s until the results of his CT scan revealed a mass on Baker’s left lung.
“It was the size of a baseball,” he said.
Then came a second blow: Baker’s physician suspected the lung cancer may have spread to his liver. He and Carolyn were told to prepare for the worst and, even, consider hospice.
“We went to the funeral home the next day to make funeral plans,” Baker said.
Raising a family
The couple was stunned. They’ve been together nearly all their lives. Born and raised in King, North Carolina, they met young, shared the same values and got married. They had a son and daughter, and dedicated their lives to raising a family.
Baker was also passionate about his 36-year career at Reynolds. After his stint as a machine operator, he held roles like export shipper and instructor that took him to Tokyo where he trained factory workers.
He smoked for 40 years and quit at age 60, about six years after Baker retired. He and Carolyn would welcome grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Then came the bad news in early November.
A ‘safety net’ for cancer patients
Unbeknownst to Baker, his CT scan had triggered an automatic review process. Think of it as a “safety net” for patients, said Dr. Garrett Sherwood, an oncologist at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Forsyth.
Here’s how it works: When a radiologist spots something that looks like lung cancer on a CT scan, they enter a specific phrase in the patient’s scan results.
Then, a medical oncologist reviews the results within about 24 hours and makes recommendations for what to do next.
It’s a critically important process, Sherwood said, and how he and the Bakers would come to meet.
"Having a system that reduces the wait time from diagnosis to treatment, sometimes bypassing the need for a referral, is what we're striving for. This approach helps us detect lung cancers that otherwise may have gone undetected, or in earlier stages, getting patients into treatment sooner,"
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A team of cancer experts
Six days after the revelation that Baker might have cancer, the Bakers were sitting in Sherwood’s Winston-Salem office.
“When we first went to see Dr. Sherwood, he sat down, and he just talked to me like he was my big brother. It was like we had known him for 15 years,” Baker said. “And I really appreciate his honesty and intelligence. Man, he is sharp.”
Sherwood ordered a more detailed PET scan, then presented the case at a weekly meeting where lung cancer cases are reviewed.
Also referred to as a “tumor board,” the meeting is a multidisciplinary team of Novant Health cancer experts, including as many as five medical oncologists who treat cancer, review and consult on patient cases.
And with the added expertise of radiation oncologists, thoracic surgeons, nurse navigators, pathologists and pulmonologists, they determine the best treatment plan for each patient they discuss.
Making cancer patients ‘feel confident’
The thoracic tumor board, which specializes in lung cancer, is one of about 25 tumor boards at Novant Health. Each board specializes in a different type of cancer. The approach offers patients a second and third medical opinion – without the wait and at no cost.
“When you get a cancer diagnosis, you get a lot of unsolicited advice. People start telling you, ‘Go see a specialist at this place or get a second opinion here.’ It can be overwhelming. And I’ve seen patients struggle with getting second opinions because they feel like they’re cheating on their doctors. Or maybe they don’t know how to get a second opinion,” Sherwood said.
“It’s not as easy as knocking on the door at Mayo Clinic and saying, ‘Hey, I want a second opinion.’ So, our tumor boards make a lot of patients feel confident knowing that we have a lot of people from different specialties, with lots of different experience treating cancer, who can review their case and arrive at a consensus on how to best help them,” he continued.
With guidance from the tumor board, it was determined that Baker should get an MRI scan to ensure the cancer hadn’t spread to his liver.
On Nov. 23, less than three weeks after their initial trip to the doctor, the results were in. Sherwood had good news: Baker’s lung cancer had not spread to his liver. His diagnosis was stage 2 lung cancer, and it was treatable.
Harold and Carolyn were elated. “It was unreal how relieved we felt,” Baker said.
‘I’m doing just as fine as you ever seen’
Baker recalled their first meeting on Nov. 30. “At a Tuesday appointment, I said, ‘Do y’all wanna do this today?’ And Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, I can get you in Friday morning.’ And it all happened just that quick,” he said.
On Dec. 3, Wilson removed the roughly 3-inch tumor in its entirety. Eight days later, Baker was back home.
“He operated on me, and I haven’t had a pain yet. Everything just went as smooth as possible, and I’m doing just as fine as you ever seen,” Baker said.
You’ll remember his cancer journey began when he cut down that tree in the backyard. It’s only fitting that in two weeks’ time, Baker was back to taking care of business.
“I done put up a mailbox, mowed the yard and cleaned the house.”
An attitude of gratitude
“The Bakers have shown us so much gratitude,” Sherwood said. “It’s not often we hear cancer patients talk about how blessed they are. His story is not one we see every day, but there are more and more stories like his, and we’re only hoping to improve on that.”
Big advancements in lung cancer
Treating patients with lung cancer is a passion of Sherwood’s, and one of the reasons he helps lead the cancer physician team at Forsyth Medical Center.
He treats smokers, former smokers and even those who have never smoked a day in their life. Yes, even non-smokers can get lung cancer.
When asked how Baker, a former smoker, went from such a grave diagnosis to nearly back-to-normal, Sherwood offered a little clarity.
“CT scans can suggest cancer. So, when a doctor spots a mass, certainly there’s a sense of urgency. A lot of physicians are very uncomfortable with how to navigate that. I think in this case, Harold’s doctor wanted to do right by him. I also think it’s important for everyone to understand that more tests are needed. That’s where we come in as medical oncologists because we’re trained in this nuance.
“Not all general practitioners understand how much has changed lately in how we treat lung cancer. Outcomes are dramatically better now than they used to be. So, it may be that 10 years ago, that mass on Harold’s lungs was a death sentence. But thankfully, we’ve evolved beyond that,” he said.
Finding lung cancer earlier
Most people realize key screenings like colonoscopies and mammograms can catch cancer early when survival rates are highest. Yet, few people have adopted this thinking when it comes to lung cancer, Sherwood said.
Since most eligible patients – less than 10% – do not get screened, he said more than half of cases are diagnosed in stage 4 when it is not curable.
Low screening rates have become a growing concern among oncologists – even prompting an update to screening guidelines in 2021.
“We have new treatments and immune therapies to help these patients. So, there’s a big focus to prevent these cases from slipping through the cracks,” Sherwood said.
Not sure when – or if – you should get screened for lung cancer? This story can help.