On Tuesday, Guthrie participated in the Shine a Light on Lung Cancer vigil for the first time in a partnership with the Lung Cancer Alliance.

Melanie Nittinger, a lung cancer patient navigator at the Guthrie Cancer Center, said she put together the vigil to honor local lung cancer patients and families and to raise awareness of the disease, which she said is the leading cause of cancer death. Communities across the nation participated in vigils Tuesday, Nittinger said.

Most lung cancers are in the advanced stages by the time they are diagnosed, and the survival rate is low because lung cancer research receives little in federal funding compared to other cancers, Nittinger said.

The cause is one close to her heart, Nittinger said - her aunt died of lung cancer six years ago at the age of 47.

Only 20 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed early, but that number is rising with new developments in lung cancer diagnosis, said Dr. James Walsh, a physician in Guthrie's pulmonary medicine department. Studies have shown CT screening to detect tumors early, leading to an increased survival rate, Walsh said.

"By finding cancer early, we'll be able to treat people more effectively and maybe even cure them in the future," Walsh said. "It's an exciting time for those of us who treat patients with lung cancer."

Dr. Bradley Lash of Guthrie's oncology program said that while treatments for lung cancer have improved in recent years, much more needs to be done. In addition to a lack of funding, few eligible lung cancer patients participate in clinical trials, making the advancement of treatments slower, he said.

Two lung cancer survivors also spoke Tuesday, including Dr. John Sommer, who works in Guthrie's urology department. After he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in Jan. 2010, Sommer felt that his prognosis was "pretty dim," he said. "I was expecting to just live a couple of months."

Today, Sommer said he appears to be disease-free and continues to work on a part-time basis.

Another survivor, Robert Rathke, said he was grateful for Guthrie's nurses in the oncology and radiology departments following his Jan. 2012 diagnosis and emphasized the importance of having symptoms checked.

"If my talking up here can help just one person get diagnosed early, it's well worth it," he said. After 24 infusions of chemotherapy and 28 radiation treatments, "here I am today," he said.

"There's always hope."

Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: arenko@thedailyreview.com.