Jeanie Larsen

SPOKANE, Wash. - The fuzzy bear head will make sense in a few minutes, but first, meet Jeanie Larsen, a Spokane woman who went to the doctor's office because of a nasty case of bronchitis last fall.

"I had bronchitis. My primary care sent me in for a chest x-ray and something didn't look right, so they sent me for a CAT scan. That's when they noticed there was a bunch of things going on in my lungs that they weren't sure about... Did a couple more cat scans and determined it was a cancerous tumor," Larsen said.

Larsen's lung cancer was thankfully in its early stages, but the disease is one that hits close to home.

"My mom died from (lung) cancer and it was very hard, so it was very scary and I cried a lot," she said.

However, times have changed, including the medical technology at the hands of professionals. As Larsen was getting ready for surgery to remove the tumor, Jiten Patel, M.D. at Providence Health and Services, was looking for patients to participate in a new clinical trial.

"She was the ideal candidate to enter into this trial, where we'd navigate out there, laser it," Patel said.

The new trial includes photodynamic therapy, which Patel points out "has been around since the 1990s, more so for head and neck cancers." What's new? Using photodynamic therapy as a tool against lung cancer.

"Typically, patients who are stage 3 or less, if they're stable enough and there are no physical limitations and knowing the intent is cure, the best option is surgery. But not all patients can have surgery, so the alternative is chemo radiation... but there's some brewing data about photodynamic therapy, specifically the sodium porfimer, which is the chemical injected in the patient and dissolves throughout the body. It takes about 48 hours to simulate throughout the body. Then, what you do is activate it through a light source for roughly 800 seconds," Patel said.

"We engage the laser and it activates the medicine," he said.

Patel said Larsen was the perfect patient because her cancer was still in its early stages, meaning she was healthy enough to participate in the clinical trial. She was also scheduled to undergo surgery, regardless of whether or not she participated in the study, meaning there wasn't any additional risks involved.

For Larsen, the process was simple: She was injected with sodium porfimer, waited a couple days, then "did the laser," she said.

The injection caused Larsen's body to be extremely sensitive to UV rays. Whether it was the sun or lighting indoors, she had to cover herself with clothing at all times, from head to toe.

Bring in the bear head; When nurses offered her a hat, which Larsen described as "ugly," she instead chose a large bear head to don around the hospital. 

"Two days later, I went back in for another CAT scan and at that point, it was determined the tumor had almost shrunk in half," Larsen said.

"She is a pioneer," Patel said. "She was motivated. I'm very thankful that she was able to pursue this treatment, where she was helping other people because it's those individuals who can't undergo recession, who can't undergo chemoradiation that this may be, albeit rare, an option for them in the future. Maybe in 4-5 years."

"I just thought that it was totally awesome that they could do this... that the medical field has come so far to be able to do an injection and shoot this thing with a laser, shrink it by half in just that amount of time," Larsen said.

Larsen is currently cancer-free. Her six-month check up is at the end of May.