Q&A: Helping families navigate cancer
If your loved one has cancer, you want to be able to trust that they’re getting the best possible care. You want their providers to treat them as if they were family.
That’s the approach Blair Irwin, MD, medical oncology physician, and Carolyn Rutter, MD, radiation oncology physician, use when they treat patients of the MultiCare Regional Cancer Center.
We talked to them to learn more about what families can do to support the ones they love while navigating a cancer diagnosis, and what contributions from people in our community can do to help.
What’s one thing you want people to know about the cancer care teams at MultiCare?
Dr. Rutter: Our commitment is to these communities — to South Sound families. That’s where our heart is. We try our best to take care of people the way we’d want our family members, or ourselves, to be cared for.
How many people are normally involved in a single patient’s cancer care plan?
Dr. Irwin: Dozens. A patient might have three different specialists they see regularly: the surgeon, the radiation oncologist and the medical oncologist.
Then there are the social workers, the financial navigator, dietitians, physical therapists, infusion nurses, psychologists and a whole host of other technicians who all contribute to the patient’s care. We discuss the patient’s unique situation as a team to ensure every aspect of their care is addressed.
What kinds of resources do family members of patients receive from MultiCare?
Dr. Irwin: We understand that cancer is a diagnosis that affects the whole family and that we must consider how the family is impacted by every aspect of the patient’s care plan.
To help ensure a patient’s family is supported, we welcome family members to join in cancer support groups and visits with our oncology psychologist. We also have chaplains at every cancer center location who are available to meet with families.
How do community donors play a role in supporting cancer patients and their families?
Dr. Irwin: We use community donations to support transportation costs, prescriptions and even meals for the families of patients who are getting treatment. The Come Walk With Me fundraising event also provides many services for breast cancer patients, such as free mammograms, wigs, post-surgical camisoles and genetic testing.
Are there any other programs or services in need of donor funding right now?
Dr. Irwin: Expansion of acupuncture services and scalp cooling.
In terms of acupuncture, there’s new data showing the benefits of acupuncture for relieving something called neuropathic pain. It’s tingling and burning in the hands and feet that occurs as a result of chemotherapy treatment. Sometimes this pain is so severe patients can’t open jars or even walk.
Historically, we have treated this pain with medications, but they don’t work very well and can be sedating. Acupuncture, on the other hand, greatly improves this pain without causing fatigue. Donor support could help us fund the expansion of acupuncture practices to all our patients.
There’s also a new device we’re hoping to get which can help patients keep their hair when they are receiving chemotherapy. This is a personal cap or hat patients wear during chemotherapy that cools their scalp, preventing hair loss. Unfortunately, this service is not covered by insurance. We are hoping to obtain donor support to provide this to all patients, regardless of their means.
How can family members be helpful while their loved one is going through treatment?
Dr. Rutter: The family’s involvement can be absolutely critical. They often clue us in to issues that aren’t obvious to us when the patient is here in clinic. Family members of patients sometimes say things like, “I’m struggling to get him or her to eat and drink. I need your help as the doctor to tell them, ‘Here’s what you need to be doing to get better.’”
Families can really be our allies in that way, to make sure the patient is getting what they need when they’re outside of our care.
Dr. Irwin: Family members are usually the ones most involved in the care of the patients, making sure patients have the right food, medications and home equipment. They play a critical role in improving outcomes.
Do family members ever contact you to say they’re grateful for the care their loved one received from you?
Dr. Rutter: All the time — it’s one of the best parts of the job. Especially right at the end of treatment, it seems like that’s when they’ll say things like, “We can’t thank you enough. Everyone has been so great to us.” It’s clear to them that we do all this work as a team.
Dr. Irwin: Yes. We get letters, emails and texts saying they are grateful. But, truly, it is my great privilege and joy to help patients and families navigate a cancer journey.