A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Amid a sea of questions ranging in topic from lifestyle changes to the future care of loved-ones, one question in particular rises above the rest: "Where can I get the best treatment?"
For residents of Southeastern North Carolina and beyond, the answer lay in the services of New Hanover Regional Medical Center's oncology program, which in addition to boasting a comprehensive array of modern cancer therapies has also been approved by the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer, or CoC, as a designated Teaching Hospital Cancer Program.
With only one in four hospitals that treat cancer nationwide receiving this special approval, recognition as Teaching Hospital Cancer Program means successful completion of a rigorous evaluation process by the CoC examining an oncology program's staff, technology, treatment protocols, including ongoing clinical trials, patient support services and incorporation of a cancer registry, or cancer patient database.
"The CoC does a wonderful job in the United States by elevating the care of the cancer patient," said Cyrus Kotwall, MD, Medical Director of NHRMC's oncology program. "By obtaining approval, we have demonstrated our emphasis on interdisciplinary care, including the combined use of surgery and chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, and by offering the latest treatments to our patients through government-sponsored clinical trials."
Optimal cancer care begins using a multi-specialty team approach. In many instances after a patient is diagnosed with cancer, his or her case is presented to a specific treatment team, or "conference," composed of oncology physicians, nurses, radiologists, and pathologists. The four specialized cancer conferences - General Cancer Conference, Breast Cancer Conference, GYN/Oncology Conference, and Head and Neck Conference - are designed to provide the best treatment options available depending on a patient's cancer type.
"The conferences provide a means for patient cases to be reviewed in a multi-disciplinary fashion,” said Walter Gajewski, MD, a gynecologic oncologist and Coastal AHEC professor. “All the related subspecialties are brought together to review patient cases and make recommendations for the best plan of care in a prospective fashion."
Once a highly specific treatment protocol has been established, physicians have a wide range of advanced procedures and technologies to help ensure the best possible patient outcome.
For patients needing radiation therapy, the Zimmer Cancer Center houses a linear accelerator with a multi-leaf collimator, electronic portal imaging and a dedicated CT scanner for treatment planning. A high-tech piece of equipment, the linear accelerator helps maximize tumor treatment.
Patients requiring chemotherapy have access to a chemotherapy suite, a modern facility home to a variety of the most effective cancer-fighting medicines and chemotherapy delivery systems.
To help patients cope with their cancer diagnosis, the Zimmer Cancer Center is filled with soothing nature photography and practitioners that provide music, dance and art therapy.
A critical component to cancer care at NHRMC - and one of the most important prerequisites to earning Teaching Hospital Cancer Program accreditation - is the oncology program's participation in ongoing clinical trials and new treatment choices as set forth by the National Cancer Institute, or NCI.
"The research staff at Zimmer are devoted to providing patients the most current cancer treatment through clinical trials," said Henry Bell, a cancer nurse and researcher at Zimmer. "Our research staff advocates for patients by making sure those who qualify for investigational treatment are invited to participate in a clinical trial regardless of age, race, or insurance status."
Currently, clinical trials, or research studies designed to determine whether new drugs or treatments are both safe and effective, are ongoing for breast, prostate, colon, ovarian, head and neck, and lung cancers.
Qualifying as a Teaching Hospital Cancer Program also means ensuring patients have access to cancer-related information and education, including books, movies, CDs and Internet access to learn about their particular cancer.
"Our knowledgeable nursing staff will take the time to sit with our patients and their families to educate them about their disease and treatments, utilizing the variety of resources available," said Michael Plumer, manager of NHRMC's Inpatient Oncology Unit.
In addition to patient education, physicians and staff at NHRMC are committed to supporting patients throughout their illness. Oncology support services at New Hanover Regional span the continuum from inpatients to outpatients.
Specialty services include a Patient Navigator whose role is to help certain patients navigate their way through the insurance process, as well as a medical social worker to provide crisis intervention and emotional support to patients and their families.
“We take a holistic approach to our patients. Our focus is not solely on the physical aspects of the disease, but on the emotional impact to the patient and their loved ones,” said Brenda Hines, a medical social worker in the oncology program.
Key to providing the most comprehensive cancer treatment available anywhere and another Teaching Hospital Cancer Program requirement, NHRMC maintains a cancer registry that collects cancer data on each patient from diagnosis to treatment to lifelong follow-up.
This data is used by various sources including physicians, administrators and other health care professionals at the local and national level to support research, grant funding and decision-making regarding future opportunities for facility and treatment expansion.
“It is utilized by a wide variety of local, state and national health care professionals for cancer research, prevention, and treatment,” said Leigh T. Hardy, a certified tumor registrar.
For Beth Mathews, Director of Cancer Services for New Hanover Regional Medical Center, designation as a Teaching Hospital Cancer Program means the perfect balance between modern technology and treatments and a caring, supportive staff of highly devoted professionals.
“Quality cancer care is a collaborative effort on behalf of a team of committed individuals working within the NHRMC oncology service line and beyond,” she said.To learn more about the Zimmer Cancer Center or for more information on NHRMC’s oncology program, please call 343.7402 or visit www. nhrmc.org/cancer.