Donor-funded program helps childhood cancer survivors thrive
A decade ago, Becca Jacobsen received life-changing news.
“I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease lymphoma when I was 17 years old,” Becca says. “I found out the day after Christmas during my senior year of high school, which is not the ideal time to get cancer in your life.”
Becca received treatment at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital where she lovingly remembers caregivers like Robert Irwin, MD who made cancer treatment a little more bearable.
Becca finished her treatment in the summer of 2008. She began college at Brigham Young University – Idaho, fresh off treatment and, as she puts it, “very bald.” Although she was ecstatic to have survived cancer with a new lease on life, being a young cancer survivor brought unforeseen challenges.
“When I was in Idaho, I realized quickly that I needed follow-up care, and I had nobody to give me that care,” Becca says. “There was no transition of any kind. My whole life, my parents had been so involved in just everything. And so, I went off to college in Idaho not knowing anybody after just finishing cancer treatment.”
Becca’s experience of feeling lost after cancer treatment is something that a lot of childhood cancer patients face. Tamara Chang, MD, a pediatric oncologist at Mary Bridge Children’s, has seen many kids and young adults like Becca struggle after treatment. So, Dr. Chang decided to offer her help.
Since the survival rate of pediatric cancer is increasing, and these children are living well into adulthood, medical professionals are beginning to see the long-term health effects of chemotherapy and radiation. These effects include heart or lung problems and slowed or delayed growth and development, along with fertility issues.
When Dr. Chang came to Mary Bridge Children’s, she met Katie Shields, RN who shared her passion for survivorship. In 2015, they started the long-term follow-up clinic for cancer survivors.
“For the first two to three years of our program, it was just me and our nurse Katie,” Dr. Chang says. “And, I could probably see maybe about 15 to 16 patients a year altogether, because of the tremendous amount of work that went into it.”
Thanks to generous donations from the Pano Koumantaros Cancer Research Fund and the Whisper Foundation to support the program, their numbers have increased exponentially.
“With donor help, in 2019, we were able to care for about 59 survivors,” Dr. Chang says. “And then in 2020, even in the setting of a pandemic, we've actually been able to see about 80 some patients already. Which is huge compared to when it was just me and Katie. We have over 400 survivors and counting now, and all of them need help. And so, that's our job — to take care of those patients in our clinic.”
Dr. Chang and the Mary Bridge Children’s Survivorship team create a health plan for every cancer survivor and make sure that patients receive consistent check-ups and follow-up care. They’ve also recently added neuro psychology screenings to their process, which allows them to refer survivors to additional mental health therapy or treatment if needed.
“I think for me, the biggest thing I received from the survivorship clinic was really knowledge about my disease,” Becca says. “They provided a lot of education that maybe I wasn't ready or mature enough to receive at the time of diagnosis that has been really good for me. I feel like having the opportunity to talk to people about all the different things I've experienced since having cancer has been a huge benefit to my overall health. It makes me a lot more compliant with my follow-up scans and tests, because I have one number that I can call to receive the help I need to stay healthy.”
Today, Becca is a care manager at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital where she helps connect patients with the resources they need to have a healthy future. Despite cancer-related fertility issues, she is mother to three healthy and happy boys.
“I think that since there's so much kindness and energy and support when kids and families are going through treatment for cancer, we don't often recognize that so much work has to happen afterward,” Dr. Chang says. “And, that often is the time when families and children and young people need even more support. So, I think that's where this program is extremely powerful. We need to support people to not only survive their cancer, but to also thrive in their lives afterward.”
You can help cancer survivors like Becca thrive long after their diagnosis by making a year-end gift to the Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation at marybridge.org/donate.
About The Author
Kortney Scroger is a communication specialist for the MultiCare Foundations. She writes stories that connect readers to the impact of giving. You can reach her at [email protected].More stories by this author