Touching Hearts

Three area programs work to improve life for cancer patients both physically and emotionally.

BY JOANN PETASCHNICK

More Cancer Treatment Options Possible with New Program 

Aurora Cancer Care has launched an innovative new program for patients whose cancer is resistant to conventional treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. The Oncology Precision Medicine Center is located inside the Vince Lombardi Cancer Clinic at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee. It will make use of molecular profiling technology to help physicians find the possibility of more treatment options. 

Dr. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a board-certified hematologist and oncologist with a doctoral degree in pharmacogenetics, serves as co-director of the program. “We get involved when standard therapy has been tried or it doesn’t work very well. We can use molecular profiling to look for treatment options that take into consideration the genetic characteristics of patients’ tumors,” Thompson says. 

The St. Luke’s clinic will be the first facility in Wisconsin to use Syapse, a leading precision medicine software system that brings together a wealth of data that helps uncover potential therapeutic treatment options. Syapse will also serve as a “match-maker” for some patients to gain access to more clinical trials. About 8,000 cancer patients are treated at Aurora. Since the clinic opened in March, more than 60 patients have been evaluated. “Several patients have (been treated) with drugs that we wouldn’t have otherwise considered,” Thompson says. All 19 Aurora Cancer Care facilities throughout eastern Wisconsin will have access to precision medicine by early 2018.

Operation Chemo Comfort 

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.6 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year. And while scientists and researchers worldwide work to find the cure and improve treatment options, local organizations are implementing programs to ease the burdens many cancer patients face. Operation Chemo Comfort, for example, gifts hand-sewn knit hats and scarves to those undergoing treatment. Feedback has been very positive. In fact, beneficiaries of Operation Chemo Comfort have come back to offer their help too. “I am a two-time breast cancer survivor. I received one of their gift bags, which was just loaded with everything you could think of. I thought it was so special that complete strangers would take the time to help me. I wanted to show my gratitude,” says Maria Nieves of Milwaukee. Nieves gives her time wherever she can. “I volunteer to put the bags together — whatever they need. I can’t sew, but I can help out,” she says. 

“To offer comfort goods and services to patients impacted by cancer for the purpose of supporting their psychological and physical well-being.” 

That’s the mission of Operation Chemo Comfort, a project started about a year ago by two women who work at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. “We often saw cancer patients bringing in bags of comfort items for other patients, and we decided we had to help,” says Carrie O’Connor, a science writer in clinical research. Under the direction of O’Connor, co-founder Kelsey Lexow, and other board members, Operation Chemo Comfort seeks in-kind donations, organizes collection and distribution drives, and supports wellness programs for cancer patients. 

Their first try at generating contributions for patients who’d lost their hair due to chemotherapy treatment yielded 250 hats, which they donated to After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD). But things took off from there. “In the fall of 2016, we put out a call on our Facebook page for people to knit, crochet or sew hats and head scarves. We couldn’t believe the response; people from 25 states and Puerto Rico contributed. We delivered 2,272 hats to Froedtert,” O’Connor says. The group also puts together gift bags with donated items like lip balm, tissues and complimentary massage tickets. It’s important to note that the hats aren’t just given to women; men also receive them. 

Corporate sponsors have come on board over the months, showing their big-heartedness, O’Connor says. “We receive generous donations from Cream City Yarn in Brookfield, Patched Works in Elm Grove, Knitting Knook in Fox Point, and Sew ‘n Save of Racine. A shop in Green Bay also donates,” she says.

Contributions to Operation Chemo Comfort can be made via the organization’s Facebook page. “In the About section there is a link to Amazon,” O’Connor notes. The Facebook page also lists group-sponsored events. 

\To O’Connor, the project is about more than the gifts they distribute. “It touches my heart to see that cancer patients receive this kind of support. It is not just about hats; it’s the love and care that go into making them,” she says. “They represent love.” 

24-Hour Cancer Clinic: When Your Illness Doesn’t Keep Regular Hours 

Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin’s 24-Hour Cancer Clinic keeps its doors open around the clock for cancer patients in need of urgent care. The clinic offers an alternative to the emergency room, where they could expose their weakened immune systems to other patients with infectious diseases. The idea was the brain child of registered nurse Tina Curtis, executive director, cancer services, and is one of just a handful in the U.S. “Our hope is that a patient with cancer will be able to come here in some cases instead of having to go to the emergency department,” says Curtis. 

Cancer patients, who often need fluids or blood transfusions, can now be treated in an outpatient setting rather than go through a lengthy emergency room visit or admission to an area hospital. Nurse practitioners familiar with cancer treatments are on staff, and an oncologist is available. “Our nursing staff are trained to be ahead of patient concerns,” Curtis adds. “They know about new medications (and) new side effects.”

Patients must first call their oncologist when they are not feeling well, Curtis notes. “They still might be sent to the emergency room, but the physician will decide if they are able to go to the clinic,” she says. 

Curtis and her staff have been pleased with patients’ encouraging feedback. “Their comments have been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. 

“For me, it’s fantastic. Going to this clinic is more like going to my doctor’s office. The staff is familiar with cancer patients; they know how to care for us,” says Jack McCauley, a 58-year-old Germantown man who has used the clinic three times this year. “I get these fevers, and sometimes nothing comes of it, but I don’t want it to get out of control,” he says.  

The 24-Hour Cancer Clinic is in the Center for Advanced Care building on the Froedtert Hospital campus. It features semi-private rooms designed after the Cancer Center Day Hospital infusion rooms and are equipped with either a hospital bed or infusion chair. “The clinic is easily accessible to patients when they arrive at any time of day or night,” says Curtis. 

“We are currently seeing about 140 patients each month, and the number is growing,” Curtis says. It’s a short trip for McCauley. “It just takes 20 minutes to get to the clinic. I really appreciate being able to go there instead of the emergency room,” he says. 

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