Brush Up on Your Knowledge of Radon’s Risks and Highlands-Cashiers Hospital’s Capability to Provide Advanced Lung Cancer Screening

Tom Neal

Tom Neal

By Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA

Most people think of tobacco use when they think of lung cancer, but did you know that there’s another, lesser known culprit that’s responsible for 22,000 lung cancer deaths across the country each year? It’s the naturally occurring gas radon, which is created when uranium in rocks and soil breaks down. Radon is invisible and odorless, and sneaks into homes, schools and other buildings, usually through cracks and openings in basements and foundations.

As it deteriorates, radon sends radioactive particles into the air, and breathing it in, in large quantities, can lead to lung cancer. Radon is not a problem when it disperses outdoors, but when trapped indoors, that’s when it becomes a health hazard.

The Environmental Protection Agency [1] shines a spotlight on radon awareness in January, with National Radon Action Month. Radon is measured by picocuries per liter (PCi/L), and a normal indoor radon level is 1.3 pCi/L. The highest radon levels in the state are found here in western North Carolina, and the area’s geological makeup is responsible for that, because we have comparatively high levels of uranium in our rocks and soil.

Fortunately, radon tests can be purchased at home stores and you can get a reading easily and quickly for your home by using one. If you do find that your home has a high level of radon in it, there are contactors who specialize in radon mitigation and can reduce the radon level of your home to a safe and acceptable level. It is now also standard practice during home inspections for radon levels to be checked.

The risk equation is also impacted by the fact that those who smoke or who have been exposed to second-hand smoke are at greater risk for radon-related lung cancer.

As with every cancer, we know that the earlier we can detect it, the better a patient’s prognosis is. It used to be that lung cancer wasn’t typically detected until it was a later stage condition, but with the advent of an advanced screening technique — the low-dose CT (LDCT) scan screening for lung cancer — many lung cancers are being found earlier now, when treatments can be more effective.

That said, there are specific criteria that a patient needs to meet in order to get a low-dose CT scan covered by insurance, and it’s a good thing to discuss with your primary are provider at your next appointment.

I’m pleased that Highlands-Cashiers Hospital [2] (HCH) has the capability to offer LDCT screenings to our community members as part of our radiology services menu, and it’s important to know also that at this time, screening services at HCH are completely safe, as we continue to take every COVID-19 safety precaution while we provide them, from screening to equipment sanitization.

You’re in the best hands when you come to the hospital for radiology services, because our team members and technologists maintain the highest safety standards as they provide care, reflected in the fact that we’re a fully accredited Diagnostic Imaging Center of Excellence™ from the American College of Radiology.

As I drafted this column, western North Carolina received its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, a truly remarkable event that can give us all hope that 2021 will be much different than 2020. We were privileged here at HCH to be able to vaccinate 210 people on December 19: 47 ELC residents and 163 employees. I’m most grateful to our team members from HCH, ELC, our HCH clinics and division support team members from WorkWell, Pharmacy, Information Technology and Infection Prevention. This event exemplified the value of team spirit, as people helped where and as they could, from serving as runners to administering the vaccine safely and efficiently. We also want to say “Thank you” to Sherriff Robbie Holland and the Macon County Sherriff’s Department for providing security coverage.

I was heartened to see people appear early before the start of the vaccine kick-off, and once we got to the vaccination step, we were busy for about four hours. I noticed that I clocked in 24,000 steps that day, since I picked up vaccine doses and delivered them to the vaccinating team.

I’m so proud that we could play such a significant role in this momentous step toward relieving the scourge of COVID-19, particularly because we happen to be the smallest hospital in the division.

All of this seemed truly unimaginable nine months ago, and to follow up on the theme of vaccination, I’ll be talking about the importance of vaccines throughout our lives in an upcoming column.

Even though the vaccine is in our midst, we can’t let our guard down. I urge you to continue practicing the 3 Ws — wearing your mask, washing your hands often and waiting six feet apart — to curb the spread of COVID-19. Our choices and actions now — including taking the vaccine when it becomes available to you — will create the reality we experience in the coming year.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital aerial view


Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, [2] a member of Mission Health, an operating division of HCA Healthcare, is a community hospital serving Macon, Jackson and the surrounding counties. Located on Highway 64 between the towns of Highlands and Cashiers, the hospital offers 24/7 emergency care, acute inpatient care, rehabilitation, as well as long-term care through Eckerd Living Center. Highlands-Cashiers Hospital has 24 beds for acute care services and 80 beds in the Eckerd Living Center. Ambulatory services are also available, including therapy services and primary care practices serving both Highlands and Cashiers.