For decades, business titan Dennis Bookshester ran Fortune 500 companies like Fruit of the Loom, Turtle Wax, and retailers Carson Pirie Scott and Zales Jewelers.
Now, the 75-year-old retiree wants to use his business acumen not to turn profits, but to cure disease.
After surviving a bout with lung cancer, Bookshester, who divides his time between Coconut Grove and Chicago, is setting up a foundation dedicated to early detection of lung cancer — a disease Bookshester successfully battled two years ago.
Bookshester's $50,000 gift to Baptist Health South Florida Foundation will support the lung screening program. The program Baptist Health Lung Screening program will be offered at all Baptist Health hospitals and facilities. People who are at high risk for lung cancer will be eligible for the screening. The screening costs $35, and will begin in June. Based on screening results, follow-up scans may be recommended for some patients.
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But Bookshester doesn’t plan to stop there. He is meeting with the two largest lung cancer foundations in Chicago and hopes to do for lung cancer what the Susan G. Komen Foundation did for breast cancer.
“If cancer could be discovered in the first phase like it was for me — if people get cat scans early on — not only would it save the 200,000 who die every year of lung cancer, it could save a lot of lives and millions of dollars in costs,’’ said Bookshester.
Bookshester and his doctor, Dr. Mark Dylewski, a thoracic surgeon at South Miami Hospital, are fighting one of the deadliest forms of cancer, which is the No. 1 cancer killer of men and women in the United States. For every six people who develop the disease, five will die. As in all cancers, early detection is key to improving survival rates. Yet few get routine scans in the way that women get mammograms.
While the Baptist initiative is focused on prevention, other doctors on the front lines of lung cancer are battling it with new and promising tools that have greatly increased survival rates. Those tools include a number of new oral medications with far less side effects than chemotherapy — Tarceva, Gilotrif and another drug just approved by the FDA this month, Zytadia.
These drugs treat advanced, small-cell lung cancer — the most common form of lung cancer, which makes up 85 percent of cases. Some of the drugs are geared to specific gene mutations while others block proteins that promote the development of cancerous cells.
“We are very excited about these new drugs,” said Dr. Luis Raez, director of the Memorial Cancer Institute in Hollywood. “These last three years have been very exciting. We are researching many other pills at this time.’’
Additionally, more and more lung cancer patients, particularly elderly ones, are being treated surgically and with radiation, said Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez, a lung cancer specialist at Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami Beach.
“We have a lot of older patients who can tolerate surgery,’’ said Rodriguez. “If you asked 15 years ago, would you treat an elderly person for lung cancer, doctors wouldn’t even refer the person to an oncologist because it was so toxic. Now I have a whole group of elderly women being treated, going about their lives, so that’s great.’’
Also giving new hope to lung cancer patients are nationwide immune therapy trials geared to reactivating the immune system to fight cancer. These therapies are effective when cancers start to bypass both the immune system and chemotherapy, and have the added bonus of being less toxic than standard chemotherapy, Rodriguez said.
“We have offered this to patients who have failed chemotherapy,’’ she said. “We all have patients who are doing better in these trials.’’
One potential treatment that so far has not proven promising are vaccines, elusive for many cancers.
Of course, no one needs an expert to tell them the best way to avoid lung cancer is to refrain from or stop smoking. Sixty to 70 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer either smoke or have done so in the past. Secondhand smoke also plays a major role.
Mary Perplies Parais, a retired nurse, was a one-time smoker who smoked a half pack of cigarettes a day. Parais was diagnosed with stage one lung cancer in September 2011. She was lucky enough to have been diagnosed very early, almost by accident. After noticing blood in her urine, Parais went to a doctor at Mount Sinai, who ordered a scan of the bladder and kidneys. Those organs were clean. But the scan caught a part of her lung, which showed a spot. Following a biopsy, Parais received the cancer diagnosis.
Parais feels fortunate her cancer was discovered so early and before any symptoms showed up.
“I almost felt like it was divine intervention this was discovered,’’ she said. “Unfortunately most lung cancers are discovered in later stages, when it’s inoperable and the only option is chemotherapy.’’
Parais underwent both surgery and chemotherapy, and since has been in remission.
“I’ve always had a positive attitude,’’ said Parais, a mother of two daughters who is active in her church and plays guitar. “I want people to know they can beat this, cause so many people give up.’’
Bookshester has the same positive attitude — and luck — as Parais. His cancer, too, was discovered early. He had a bad cold and, at his wife’s urging, visited a Baptist urgent care center. When a routine X-ray showed a spot, the doctor urged him to go to the hospital immediately for a cat scan. He did, and was stunned when the doctor said to him, ‘It looks like cancer.’ A pet scan was inconclusive.
Bookshester sought opinions from two doctors. One doctor recommended waiting, while another recommended removing the nodule with surgery. Bookshester opted for the second opinion, and the nodule turned out to be malignant.
Again, when deciding whether to have further treatment, Bookshester got several opinions from doctors. Most recommended chemotherapy, but Bookshester followed the advice of the one who did not, deciding, “I’d rather have a better and shorter quality of life.’’
Since then, Bookshester has been on a mission to improve his health, changing his diet, cutting out alcohol and fatty foods, and stepping up his usual workout routine (He smoked cigars many years ago, he said.).
Booskshester’s on another mission, too. Aside from his plans for the foundation, he personally lectures every person he sees smoking. Most listen politely, he says.
“I want to create a lot more awareness for lung cancer,’’ said Bookshester. “In my humble opinion, if there was more cooperation between doctors and scientists, I think cancer would be cured by now.’’