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Sandra Starnes, MD

Finding cancer early often means living later.

Sandra Starnes, MD, Professor of Surgery and Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, is helping change the way doctors approach lung cancer screening. As a cardiothoracic surgeon, director of the Lung Cancer Screening Program and Co-Director of the UC Cancer Institute’s Lung Cancer Center, and professor, Starnes’ role at the UC College of Medicine involves wearing many different hats.

“Most of my patients have cancer, so I have the opportunity to do interesting and complex surgeries that can potentially cure people from cancer, which is rewarding,” said Starnes. “The rest of my job involves doing research and trying to figure out how things can be done better in the future. And then I get to teach the next generation of surgeons.”

UC College of Medicine’s two Sandra Starnes MDthoracic surgery residency programs provide Starnes with ample opportunities to work with young doctors, including a traditional residency program and newer integrated program that combines general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery into the same six-year program.

“My entire day involves teaching,” said Starnes. “I teach in the operating room and in the office, and my research projects have medical students and residents involved, so it all kind of goes together.”

Many of Starnes’ research efforts involve the Lung Cancer Screening Program, which is deemed a Center of Excellence by the Lung Cancer Alliance. Lung cancer screening wasn’t originally recommended, but in 2011, Starnes completed a research study showing that low-dose CT scans could effectively screen for lung cancer. 

Following Starnes’ study and the release of the National Lung Screening Trial, Starnes helped assemble the Lung Cancer Screening Program at the UC Cancer Institute in 2012. The program’s unique multidisciplinary team consists of a thoracic surgeon, radiologist, pulmonary specialist and hospital administration. 

Lung Cancer Screening Program coordinators work with eligible patients to complete screening procedures, and the multidisciplinary team reviews the results. Instead of ordering potentially unnecessary tests following a suspicious scan, all abnormal scans are reviewed by the tumor board, which provides a recommendation, creating truly personalized care for all screening patients even though they may never see one of the doctors involved. 

“We have a great team of experts in lung cancer who are very willing to collaborate and constantly want to think about how we can do things better,” said Starnes. “I think that collaborative environment, where people aren't trying to fight about things or compete, really fosters innovative research.” 

Moving forward, Starnes hopes to expand the number of people being screened by educating the community on screening benefits and to incorporate more smoking cessation efforts into the screening program. While the program has shown positive results since its inception, lung cancer screening is still relatively new, and Starnes believes they’re just getting started.