Mind, Body, Spirit
Written by Rebecca Budde & Karen Carlson • Photography by Jason Johnson
In 2001, the idea of a cancer institute was born. In 2010, the doors opened. Nearly four years later, Simmons Cancer Institute (SCI) has developed a forward-thinking, comprehensive approach that distinguishes this institute. The advanced team approach exemplifies the SIU philosophy of treating the whole person — body, mind and spirit — to a new level of coordination.
"The model of SCI is the most developed comprehensive cancer program in downstate Illinois," says K. Thomas Robbins, M.D., director of Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU, professor of surgery and Simmons Chair of Excellence in Oncology.
Specifically, SCI’s cancer care teams encompass a method advanced beyond traditional tumor boards. "Our cancer care teams allow multi-disciplinary input from different types of specialists, including researchers who help raise the bar for treating cancers in a more effective, efficient way," says Dr. Robbins. A typical team may consist of a radiation therapist, chemotherapist, oncologist, surgeon, speech therapist, radiologist, dietician, psychologist or social worker and nurse all offering expertise in one setting for the best treatment options for the patient.
"With 12 organized teams that cover most types of cancer, we have a user-friendly system for patients to have a thorough evaluation in a fairly rapid turnaround time." Dr. Robbins says. Approximately half of SCI’s patients travel from outside the Springfield area, so the time saved with this coordinated care is invaluable. Care teams meet weekly as a group to discuss patient cases. The patient is then given a plan of action, usually the same day.
"I can’t say enough about the treatment I received here," says Sally Brackney, who was diagnosed with cancer of the right vocal cord. "I met with a group of 8-10 doctors the very first day I came to SCI. Together, they discussed my cancer. After lunch they gave me the plan of action. It was so easy."
"This is an advanced approach from what I’ve seen in my many years in oncology," says Jayme Carrico, who has over seventeen years of experience working with various oncology groups and facilities. Carrico is SCI’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer who joined the SCI team in July. "So often a tumor board meets retrospectively, after the patient has been treated. At SCI, we are taking care of patients prospectively, and they are getting the news the same day they come in for tests. They get a multidisciplinary team approach to their care. That’s really awesome."
Partners in Care
SCI has built and strengthened relationships with local and regional providers to improve access for patients and provide cutting-edge treatment options and extraordinary patient care.
Access to care is the biggest challenge in the region. The physicians work with oncologists in the area to deliver care in various ways.
Teleconferencing with Southern Illinois Healthcare, an affiliate of SCI since 2010, allows SCI’s physicians to serve as a resource for physicians and patients in outlying areas.
Some of SIU’s physicians have also taken cancer care on the road to outlying communities. Dr. Robbins has a clinic in Herrin and Aziz Khan, M.D., chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology, chief medical officer at SCI and professor of internal medicine, and Robert Mocharnuk, M.D., director of the Breast Center at SIU and associate professor of internal medicine, see patients in Staunton. The need for physicians in these areas is growing as increasing numbers of patients are traveling to Springfield for cancer care.
“We want to be the referral center for patients with cancer in downstate Illinois who cannot get care close to home,” says Dr. Robbins. “We want to truly impact the burden of cancer in the region.”
SIU physicians, Springfield area hospitals and organizations such as the Regional Cancer Partnership of Illinois, The American Lung Association and Lincoln Land Community College Culinary Institute have banded together to provide cancer screenings and educational events. Mammogram Mondays, hosted at SCI in October through a partnership with Memorial Medical Center, provided approximately 70 uninsured women with free screenings in 2012. The free service was made possible again this year through a grant from the Memorial Affiliate of Susan G. Komen that was obtained by the Regional Cancer Partnership. SCI, Memorial Medical Center and St. John’s Hospital are providing the service this year.
Population science is a newer focus of SCI, in the hope to further decrease the burden of cancer. By digging deeper into the epidemiology of cancer, physicians and researchers can tailor studies and treatments to the needs of the community. As an academic institution, SCI advances research through basic and clinical studies and the translation from bench to bedside.
Approximately 150 clinical trials are currently offered at SCI, letting patients participate in the latest therapies while helping scientists add to the understanding of the disease and its treatment. These studies are offered through the Central Illinois Community Clinical Oncology Program, the Radiation Therapy Oncology Program offered through St. John’s Hospital and SIU School of Medicine programs.
Some of these trials are only available at SCI, according to Kathy Robinson, Ph.D., director of clinical trials at SCI. “Clinical trials provide physicians and patients additional weapons in their arsenal against cancer,” Robinson says. “Some treatments are more developed than others, but all offer hope for future cancer patients. Participants often feel like clinical trials give them the power to choose how to fight their disease rather than just accept it.”
In addition to quality patient care and research, SCI offers a variety of additional programs and services to improve the experience for patients and their caregivers.
Infusion center charge nurse Amanda Hutton, R.N., believes that SCI’s “light, friendly” environment aids patients in their fight against cancer. Everything at SCI, from the volunteers at the front desk, the wood flooring, pleasant artwork and a family atmosphere, were planned with a patient focus. “Patients spend so much time here, sometimes up to six hours, that they become family,” Hutton says.
In fact, the infusion center is often the scene of celebration. When a patient completes his or her last treatment, “it’s all hands on deck for celebrating with the patients,” Hutton says. “We even give them a specially-designed survivor t-shirt.” Regardless of treatment location, cancer patients, their caregivers and family have access to many benefits at SCI through the American Cancer Society (ACS). SCI houses an ACS wig salon where patients can select a wig and up to two scarves or hats for free. They can attend classes to learn how to tie the scarves and style the wigs. The ACS also sponsors a Look Good, Feel Better program where a cosmetologist gives women make-up tips. A patient navigator at SCI guides them through the health-care system and helps them gain access to qualifying services. (see sidebar) SCI’s partnership with the ACS has been strengthened this year with Dr. Robbins’ position as volunteer president of the Illinois Division of the American Cancer Society.
Three board-certified genetic counselors are also available to help people before cancer strikes. Genetic counseling allows patients to take control by providing knowledge about appropriate cancer screening guidelines, genetic testing and in some cases, preventive surgeries.
SCI’s services also include support groups, counseling services, wellness classes through the Side-by-Side program and animal therapy. In addition, a nutritionist offers extra dietary support as patients go through radiation and chemotherapy. SCI is also the only cancer treatment center in Springfield with a licensed pharmacist to help patients with specific issues that may arise from cancer treatment. Having a pharmacist on the team allows SCI to develop rigorous safety standards for the mixing and handling of medications and needed for sophisticated clinical trials. See Profile
Genetic counselors construct the genetic family tree
Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate who have tested positive for the breast cancer gene, commonly known as BRCA, have increased awareness about hereditary cancers and genetic counseling. To help individuals interested in their cancer risk, three board-certified genetic counselors are seeing patients at SCI.
Genetic counseling can help patents take control by providing knowledge about appropriate cancer screening guidelines, genetic testing and preventative surgeries in some cases.
Heather Glessner, Ellen Thomas and Dan Groepper make up the genetic counseling team at SCI. “A patient doesn’t necessarily have to have a cancer diagnosis to meet and discuss their family medical history with a genetic counselor,” Glessner said. Any physician can refer a patient if there is a history of cancer in the family or if a close relative, such as a sibling, is diagnosed. The team provides cancer risk counseling services at SCI and also counsel for prenatal and reproductive risks and for personal or family history of a known genetic condition.
Genetic counseling “can help dispel family myths,” Groepper said. “A person may be at risk for cancer based on family history, but cancer is not inevitable.” Taking a genetic history is similar to constructing a family tree, according to Glessner. “During a cancer consultation, we inquire about patient’s relatives, including the type and age of onset of their cancer and age at death. We assess their risk for hereditary cancer syndromes with this information, consider genetic testing and discuss how possible outcomes may impact their future medical decisions,” Glessner said. The team also helps patients determine if their insurance provider will cover the cost of testing. Genetic testing is not appropriate for every patient who seeks genetic counseling and not all health insurance policies cover genetic testing.