Marty LaBrecque, 69, smoked Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls for nearly 50 years—a pack or two a day, depending on the decade.

He picked up the habit as a teenager, when smoking “was kind of cool.”

He kept it up throughout his 48-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kathryn, also a smoker.

When she died of throat cancer in 2017, LaBrecque faced a grief so strong he nearly lost his will to live.

The following spring, however, as new life emerged in the flower beds outside his Grand Rapids, Michigan, home, he decided to make a new start.

“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to live’—because for a while, I didn’t know if I wanted to,” he said.

Lung cancer screening

Having worked his entire career in information technology, LaBrecque approached life’s next chapter in a logical, data-driven way: He would quit smoking, then retire from his IT job, then work on improving his fitness.

But first, he wanted a baseline understanding of his health.

He started with his primary care physician.

“I would really like to know what my lungs look like right now,” he told his doctor.

“I’ve been abusing them forever, but I’d like to know, now, what kind of shape they’re in.”

His doctor referred him to the lung cancer screening program at the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. The lung screening clinic uses a low-dose CT scan to detect cancer early in people without symptoms who have a long history of smoking.

One week after giving up smoking for good, LaBrecque met with Courtney Lane, DNP, a nurse practitioner who specializes in lung cancer screening and smoking cessation. She told him he met the screening criteria perfectly because he:

  • Was between the ages of 55 and 80
  • Had smoked for at least 30 years
  • Had quit smoking within the past 15 years
  • Had no lung cancer symptoms

In April 2018, LaBrecque had his first screening. Though the scan showed several tiny lung nodules—small bumps or lesions in the tissue—Lane saw nothing to be concerned about.

“It’s very, very common to have small nodules,” she said. “Size usually determines if we’re concerned for cancer or not, and … none of his were suspicious.”

The largest was only 3 millimeters.

The clinic asks patients to return for follow-up lung scans annually, so in May 2019, LaBrecque had his second low-dose CT scan.

He was on the way home from a weekend in Milwaukee when Lane reached him by phone. A nodule that a year earlier had been 2 millimeters had grown to nearly 8 millimeters, she told him.

Any sign of growth is bad news.

“Eight millimeters is still really small,” she said, “but then the fact that we’d seen that it had grown—we were very suspicious and knew that it was likely cancer.”

Diagnosis and surgery

LaBrecque returned to Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion several times in the following weeks for diagnostic tests and appointments with Lane to discuss his treatment plan.

First, he had an eyes-to-thighs PET scan, during which a sugar-based tracer circulated through his body.

“Anything that’s eating that sugar or metabolizing that sugar at a higher rate will light up on the PET scan. So if it lights up really brightly, we’re concerned that it’s cancer,” Lane said.

During the scan, the only spot that lit up as suspicious was the nodule the radiology team already had their eye on, in the upper section of his right lung.

The PET scan confirmed the nodule’s size as less than a centimeter, meaning that if it proved to be cancerous, it would be what Lane called “the earliest of early” stage.

LaBrecque then underwent a CT-guided needle biopsy, which confirmed the nodule as malignant.

After passing a breathing test—he had sufficient lung capacity to function with part of his lung removed—LaBrecque received the lung multispecialty team’s recommendation: that he undergo surgery with Charles Willekes, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon, to have the upper third of his right lung taken out.

Analyst that he is, LaBrecque trusted the data—and he had come to trust the medical staff.

“There wasn’t a question I could ask that Courtney couldn’t answer—and she did so very clearly and took her time. And with Dr. Willekes, the same thing,” he said.

LaBrecque underwent minimally invasive surgery in early August at Spectrum Health Fred & Lena Meijer Heart Center. Dr. Willekes used the da Vinci surgical system, which uses a computerized console to robotically guide instruments and cameras that are inserted into small incisions in the patient’s body.

In LaBrecque’s case, Dr. Willekes made four incisions in his back and used the openings to access and remove the right lung’s top lobe, along with some lymph nodes from the middle of his chest.

When the pathology report came back, the lung cancer team declared LaBrecque cured. Free of cancer. No chemotherapy or radiation needed.

“I had firsthand, long-term knowledge of the effects of both,” he said, his eyes welling up as he recalled his wife’s treatments. “I was delighted not to have to do that. And fortunate.”

What would he do instead? Focus on the future.

A future with his three daughters and five grandkids. And with Kathy Keehn, a retired educator he met when his children encouraged him to join an online dating service.

Now, having weathered this cancer journey together, the couple figures they’ve earned the chance to enjoy what comes next.

“You know, we hadn’t been dating very long when he got that phone call on the speakerphone of his car that mentioned the word cancer, and we had to really say, ‘Are we in this or not?’” Keehn said.

“But we both have figured, we made it through this one, we’re in pretty good shape. And when you’re this age, you don’t mess around. … We gotta make the absolute best of this window.”

Eyes on the future

After LaBrecque’s final post-op appointment, the couple went home and booked travel. On the list: the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Alaska. Maybe Ireland, too.

In the meantime, LaBrecque is back at the gym, putting in his time on the treadmill.

“I’ll be back playing pickleball, I think, in a month or two,” he said. “I can do anything. My normal daily life is not impeded at all.”

That’s the beauty of catching cancer early, Lane said—the outcomes are good. If LaBrecque hadn’t come for yearly screenings, he’d have had no way of knowing he had a growing nodule.

That message isn’t lost on him.

“If I hadn’t done that, (who knows) how long it would have been before I knew I had cancer, and how advanced, and where all it might be by the time I learned of it?” he said.

And if he hadn’t had the willpower to quit smoking in 2018, the story might have had a different ending—he might not have been considered a candidate for surgery a year later, Lane said.

“The timing—that he was able to quit smoking—I think it shows that he was wanting to take charge of his health,” Lane said. “And I think it was just an amazing thing he was able to do that.”

Though he’s tried to quit using a variety of methods over the years, LaBrecque said this time he’s done smoking for good.

“I know that I’m never having a cigarette again in my life,” he said. The satisfaction that comes from not smoking “way, way overwhelms” the occasional urge to smoke.

Still, LaBrecque doesn’t presume to tell others to quit. He knows how hard it is. He’s failed before, thinking he could somehow resume life as a “casual smoker” after three nicotine-free years.

His only advice is to look into lung cancer screening. Get the data. Understand what you’re up against.

“I would say, ‘Go for it tomorrow,’” he said.