Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center treats the mind and spirit, as well as the disease
by Joan Brasher
photography by John Russell
In July of 2009, Myra McCarthy was on vacation in Florida with her husband when he had a seizure. He was rushed to a local hospital, and it was discovered he had Stage IV lung cancer. The couple returned to Nashville for treatment, reeling from the news. After two rounds of chemotherapy, his condition declined rapidly. In March 2010, he succumbed to the disease.
“We had been married 26 years, and he was the love of my life,” McCarthy said. “When you are facing something like this and you know your significant other is going to die, it’s like you are walking into a big black hole and you don’t know how or if you will come back out of it.”
McCarthy got in touch with Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s new program, The Hope Connection, which matches people battling cancer or their caregivers by phone with a volunteer who is willing to listen, talk and offer support.
“We have 50 volunteers who are themselves cancer survivors or caregivers,” said Jane Kennedy, manager of patient advocacy. “These individuals have personally experienced the challenges of a cancer diagnosis and can provide reassurance and hope.”
McCarthy was matched with Kehaunani Hubbard, whose husband died in 2005 from Stage IV brain cancer.
“Kehaunani had a child, too, and her husband died of cancer, so she understood what I was going through,” McCarthy said.
“When you hit Stage IV, it’s like you are being pushed off a cliff,” Hubbard said. “There’s no lead-up to it – no time to understand or process what is going on. I talked to Myra and helped her find the resources she needed. Ultimately, it went beyond Hope Connection to us simply helping each other and relating as widows.”
According to the American Cancer Society, one-third of all women and half of all men in America will develop cancer during their lifetimes. Millions are living with it or have had it.
Every year, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center sees more than 5,000 new patients facing cancer. Each is dubbed a “cancer survivor” for the rest of their lives, avoiding terms such as “patient” or “victim.”
But Vanderbilt University Medical Center doesn’t stop at treating the disease alone. An impressive array of support services and resources is in place to help men and women and their families deal with every aspect of their journey.
Upon diagnosis, individuals and their caregivers can seek support in the way that suits them best, whether it’s exploring literature at the Patient and Family Resource Center, being matched with a “phone buddy,” or getting help creating a full post-treatment Survivorship Care Plan.
Information is Power
At VICC, the survivor’s first stop is the Patient and Family Resource Center. The homey resource room is stocked with information on the programs and partnerships available to survivors and their families. Kim Drake, program coordinator, is on hand each day to provide direction and answer questions.
“The resource center is a vital part of the cancer clinic, because it offers cancer patients and their families a one-stop informational setting where they can find free resources and information about treatment options, clinical trials and symptom management,” Drake said.
It is here that survivors receive their new patient handbook, Tools for Learning, designed to help them and their families keep everything related to their cancer care in one place and to provide key information about VICC and community resources.
“I am a nurturer by nature, so my job gives me the opportunity to use my talent to help ease the patient’s fear and anxiety when they are faced with a cancer diagnosis,” Drake said. “Just to look in their faces and see that I’ve helped them become equipped with the knowledge that they need makes coming to work each and every day worthwhile.”
At one of the center’s computer stations, patients can find information and connect with other survivors and medical professionals across the country at sites such as CancerConnect.com, a new online social network for people with cancer. Vanderbilt’s community, CancerConnect.com/Vanderbilt, is moderated by top professionals from VICC, including Cynthia Floyd Manley, VICC’s associate director for communications and VUMC’s director of social media strategies.
“Cancer survivors and caregivers benefit from the social support of those who have walked in their shoes,” Manley said. “Cancer Connect is sort of like a Facebook for survivors, and our partnership with Cancer Connect enables them to reach not only patients and caregivers here in Middle Tennessee, but also from across the country, increasing their chances of finding someone with similar needs and experiences.”
A Personal Touch
Patients spend many long hours within the medical center’s walls, and Patient and Family Support Services is there to help make the cancer survivor’s time at Vanderbilt as pleasant as possible. Dedicated staff and volunteers provide a variety of services, such as visiting with patients undergoing treatment, bringing in pet therapy dogs, managing a snack cart, and generally offering smiles and kind words wherever they go.
Program coordinator Kim Hunter recruits musical guests to perform for patients, including those from the Nashville Symphony, Blair School of Music and country music artists. Hunter helps with the wig and scarf program, which provides a private and confidential fitting and a free wig for patients who have lost their hair during treatment. She also trains volunteers and secures donations of hats and scarves from knitting and crocheting groups.
“Being able to spend time helping someone at what is generally the worst point of their lives is so meaningful,” Hunter said. “The job I do really keeps things in perspective. It gives you a whole new appreciation for life.”
Vanderbilt relies on partnerships with national organizations to provide many support services and programs for cancer survivors and their families, especially support services of an emotional nature.
Gilda’s Club Nashville offers programming that includes everything from traditional talk therapy to tai chi classes. The organization serves all cancer communities.
“VICC sees Gilda’s Club as a key partner in the health of cancer patients,” said Anne Washburn, associate director for patient and community education at VICC. “We are so thankful for these kinds of partnerships, because otherwise we would be duplicating our efforts and not leveraging resources.”
Vanderbilt also partners with the American Cancer Society. The Breast Center at Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks and the Henry-Joyce Clinic at VICC both partner with the American Cancer Society to host Look Good Feel Better events, which help cancer survivors address appearance issues – such as hair loss, rashes, dry skin, the loss of eyebrows and lashes and weakened fingernails, to name a few – while they fight the disease.
The events are free-of-charge and open to anyone with a cancer diagnosis who has had at least one chemotherapy treatment at Vanderbilt or another hospital. At the gatherings, specially trained beauty professionals demonstrate how to apply makeup, deal with skin care challenges and wrap head scarves. Each woman who attends the class receives free makeup and skin care products donated from high-end cosmetics companies, such as Chanel, MAC and Bobbie Brown.
“Breast cancer takes a toll on a woman’s femininity,” said Heather Satterfield, who coordinates the program at The Breast Center. “When cancer takes away their breasts, their hair, even their eyelashes, many of them feel like they don’t have a whole lot left. The Look Good Feel Better program helps them find their beauty again and helps them find a friend.”
The presentation, which involves much laughter and culminates in a communal lunch, provides survivors with a much-needed respite from medical appointments and the chance to exchange information, ask questions and tell their stories.
“We call it makeup therapy,” Satterfield said. “I see the ugly side of cancer on a daily basis. But on the days we have this class, you see the beautiful part. It’s so rewarding to see how strong these women are.”
Not all cancer survivors are comfortable seeking out support or asking for help. Traditionally, men are less likely to seek out support, whether they are the caregiver or the one getting treatment, said Dan McCollum, co-coordinator of access services at Eskind Biomedical Library, who successfully underwent treatment for prostate cancer a few years ago.
“If you want to clear a room, just bring up prostate cancer,” McCollum said. “Men don’t tend to seek help or want to talk about it – it strikes too close to their masculinity. In the animal kingdom, when you show weakness you get eaten by somebody – and that’s how many of us feel.”
McCollum, who has a family history of prostate cancer, said men should overcome their fears of the subject, especially when talking to brothers, sons and friends about prostate cancer screening.
“There are so many myths and so much false information out there, but the truth is the treatments are much better than they used to be, and the side effects are not nearly as severe as they used to be.”
Early detection is key, McCollum said. So is reaching out for emotional support, even when it’s uncomfortable.
“We all need help from time to time, and it’s crucial to get that help so you can better understand what you’re going through, what resources are out there, and get the encouragement, especially.”
McCollum is dedicated to educating people about prostate cancer and its prevalence in Tennessee.
“One big difference between research in breast cancer and prostate cancer is the amount of research dollars behind breast cancer research,” he said. “Prostate cancer doesn’t have a simple diagnostic test to screen for it – you have to submit to a biopsy, which many don’t want to do. I would love to see that change.”
Once treatment is over, there is still work to be done. Vanderbilt’s REACH for Survivorship Clinic – a collaboration of VICC, the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and the Department of Pediatrics – helps bring a sense of cohesiveness to a survivor’s journey.
The program compiles all of a patient’s records, whether they received treatment at Vanderbilt or not, so that a Survivorship Care Plan may be developed. This plan includes the cancer diagnosis and treatment; the treatment facility and oncology health care providers; potential long-term physical and emotional effects; potential risks of treatment and screening guidelines; and recommendations to prevent chronic illness, cancer recurrence or new cancers.
“Some cancer survivors may be at a higher risk for secondary cancers for various reasons, and they may have long-term symptoms and side effects from the treatment they’ve received,” said Washburn, who also serves as the administrative director of the program.
The program is staffed with a primary care physician, oncologists and nurse practitioners, as well as a social worker to address emotional concerns – such as fear of the cancer coming back or coping with the “new normal” after treatment has ended.
“We take a multidisciplinary approach to post-cancer care,” Washburn said. “We are working every day to empower survivors and their families so they can feel comforted and at peace no matter where their journey takes them.”
For more information, visit www.vicc.org/cancercare/support.
Additional photography by Daniel Dubois and Susan Urmy
Support Helps You Heal
Having emotional support is a key component to healing from cancer, new research shows. According to Meira Epplein, assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt, breast cancer patients who have a strong social support system in the first year after diagnosis are less likely to die or have a recurrence of cancer. For more on the study, visit news.vanderbilt.edu/2011/01/breast-cancer-study-social-network.
“The Cancer GPS: Navigating Your Journey”
June 18, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Student Life Center
Lance Armstrong’s mother, Linda Armstrong Kelly, will be the keynote speaker for this educational conference and celebration. Open to cancer patients, caregivers, family, friends and health professionals. Visit www.vicc.org for more details.