Mary Davis shies away from the spotlight.
“I don’t like to be the center of attention,” she said.
But in 2016, when a hacking cough resulted in an unexpected cancer diagnosis, she had no choice but to turn the attention to herself.
Because Davis had experienced asthma and allergies in the past, the persistent cough did not initially concern her. But as it lingered, she decided a trip to her primary care physician might offer some relief.
After trying antibiotics and a protein pump inhibitor, which is used to prevent cough-inducing reflux, the cough persisted.
That’s when the doctor decided there could be a more severe underlying cause for Davis’ cough and sent her for a CT scan.
“After the CT revealed a tumor in my lung, a biopsy confirmed I had a type of lung cancer known as adenocarcinoma,” said Davis, a former smoker who was 55 at the time of her diagnosis.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 40 percent of all lung cancers are adenocarcinomas. While this type of non small-cell lung cancer occurs primarily in former or current smokers, it is also the most common type of lung cancer found in nonsmokers.
In Arkansas, the burden of lung cancer is heavy, with an estimated 2,720 new cases diagnosed and 2,130 deaths associated with the disease in 2018 alone. That’s significantly more than the estimated 1,290 Arkansas lives lost to breast, colorectal and prostate cancer combined for the same year.
After her initial diagnosis, Davis scheduled surgery at a Little Rock hospital, where she was told part of her lung would be removed, in addition to one of her ribs. The extent of the invasive surgery was alarming, particularly to Davis’ husband, Jerry.
Unaware that other surgical options existed, Davis agreed to the surgery and prepared to have an extensive recovery time. However, when her surgeon developed an illness and postponed her surgery at the last minute, her husband began consulting friends and colleagues about other surgeons in the area.
“The name that kept coming up was Dr. Matthew Steliga at UAMS,” Davis said.
A surgical oncologist in the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Steliga specializes in lung cancer, esophageal cancer and other tumors of the chest.
“Adenocarcinoma is a slow-growing type of lung cancer that is found more often in women than in men. With Mrs. Davis, the cancer was found relatively early, so the chance for a successful outcome was good,” said Steliga, associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Surgery.
The Davises were relieved when Steliga recommended a much different surgical approach than their prior physician had described. With three small incisions, Steliga could use minimally invasive techniques to remove the lower lobe of Davis’ lung, resulting in less pain.
“Our Lung Cancer Team personalizes a treatment plan based on each individual’s needs and wishes. The right surgery for one person might not be the right surgery for another person. We determined that a minimally invasive surgery was the best choice for Mrs. Davis, and it provided an excellent outcome for her,” Steliga said.
After a four-day stay in the hospital at UAMS, Davis returned to her job as a manicurist at a Maumelle salon one month later.
“Dr. Steliga did a magnificent job. Even my regular customers have been in awe of my health,” she said.
Two years later, Davis is thrilled with the long-term results of her surgery and the fact that she did not require any subsequent chemotherapy or radiation therapy. With her life now back to normal, she continues being active in her church and working at the salon, where she also provides in-home pedicures for people with disabilities.
“God placed me in the good hands of Dr. Steliga, his nurse practitioner Patricia Franklin, and all the people who took such good care of me. I am now two years strong, and it is due to the continued care of these two special people and the staff at UAMS. Even my family and friends were impressed by my excellent care and progress. I brag on Dr. Steliga for my awesome health every chance I get,” she said.