Francie's Story Lung Cancer

Francie Lung Cancer Penn

How do you kill lung cancer? First you make it glow.

Francie Howat is a young-looking grandmother on-the-go. Vibrant and active, when she developed swollen glands in her neck, she didn’t give them too much thought. To err on the safe side, Francie eventually saw an ear, nose and throat specialist. The physician ordered a CT imaging study, which revealed something ominous.

In Francie’s right lung, the radiologist discovered ‘ground glass densities’ — a finding that describes a nodule or growth with the textural appearance of ground glass. These densities can be benign, but more often, they indicate cancer.

Cancer? Then the Next Step Was Penn

Francie was adamant about going to Penn if she needed a more extensive work-up for cancer. Penn is rated in the same category of excellence as Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and it was just 30 minutes from Francie’s home.

At Penn, CT and PET scans confirmed that, unfortunately, Francie’s nodule was lung cancer and that she needed surgery. Despite the diagnosis, Francie remained upbeat – determined to beat cancer with her Penn team. When she was offered an opportunity to join a unique Penn research study, Francie felt comfortable saying ‘yes’ — knowing she was in the best hands, working with the best minds.

Invisible Cancer Made Visible

The Penn-developed research involved a new technique whereby cancer cells, previously invisible to CT and PET scans, are revealed. Twenty-four hours before surgery a patient is injected with indocyanine green, an FDA-approved dye. The dye has a unique ability to accumulate in cancer cells, and once exposed to infrared light during surgery, glows a brilliant green color — illuminating the cancer in real-time.

Francie’s surgeon, Sunil Singhal, MD, Director of the Thoracic Surgery Research Laboratory at Penn Medicine, explains, “Often, invisible cancer cells can be missed during surgery. This leads to disease recurrence.” With this new technique we can root out the hidden cancer right in the operating room.”

Two Tumors, Not One

“Both Dr. Singhal, and I went into surgery expecting that he would find one tumor,” says Francie. “But the dye injection revealed an unexpected second lung tumor that glowed like the Emerald City — a tumor that did not appear on my original imaging studies. Dr. Singhal removed every last bit of it.”

“If I had gone to any other medical center, they might have missed the second tumor. And because I had an aggressive form of lung cancer, this potentially missed tumor would have killed me," says Francie.

No Chemo. No Radiation. Now Cancer Free.

Because of her revolutionary treatment, Francie did not need further treatment, neither chemotherapy nor radiation therapy. And today, she is cancer-free. Francie says: “I have an obligation to pay it forward and tell people about my Penn experience.”

“Penn has the best care I could have gotten anywhere. And I am living proof.”

Watch Francie tell her story, or make an appointment with a lung cancer nurse navigator at the Abramson Cancer Center.