News from Illinois CancerCare

With You Every Step of the Way

Although many people may exit a movie theater as soon as the first credits roll up the screen, a patient observer will take note that a film is the product of thousands of individuals. Even though we may only directly recognize the actors’ contributions, the story cannot be completed without a host of professionals working together to produce something magical.

To defeat the villain known as cancer is no less marvelous a feat and requires a herculean effort of many experts in their respective disciplines. In most cases, however, those experts are spread out across multiple clinics, hospitals, and even cities. But at the Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Cancer Clinic, every member of the team works together and interacts directly with the patient in a streamlined, coordinated approach.

From the first stages of the diagnosis to the follow-up appointments, this multidisciplinary, collaborative team of specialists is with their patients every step of the way.

The Driving Force

Just as any good film has a great director, the Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Cancer Clinic has a great leader at its helm as well. An expert in medical oncology, hematology, and internal medicine, Madhuri Bajaj, MD, formed this specialty clinic at Illinois CancerCare (ILCC) and it is just one of ILCC’s many innovative and cutting edge services.

The specialists of the GI Multidisciplinary Clinic meet with their patients every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon in an all-in approach that is meant to eliminate a few major obstacles with cancer care.

The first concern is the burden and inconvenience a diagnosis of cancer can put on a patient’s schedule. When diagnosed with a GI cancer such as colon, rectum, liver, stomach, pancreas, etc., scheduling may seem a trivial concern at first, but Dr. Bajaj knows how the process usually works for patients.

“When patients are diagnosed they realize it takes a team to take care of them,” she explains. “They usually need to meet with a surgeon, a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and a support team consisting of counseling people, nutrition people, financial assistance people, etc. Patients then have to run around town and that may lead to a lot of barriers in care.”

The second issue to resolve is cancer management as it evolves over the course of a patient’s journey. As the treatment story unfolds it is not always clear-cut and the proper course of action can change rapidly. “It’s important the necessary team can come together and make a treatment plan,” she says. The patient finds out that if all of them are sitting together, explaining where in the cancer journey they are, it’s not only more convenient it makes more sense—and it’s all in real time.”

“That was really the impetus,” continues Dr. Bajaj. “We want to coordinate, package, and deliver care quickly, efficiently, as comprehensively, and to the highest level of quality as possible. That’s really the goal of this clinic and why it got started.”

Coordination of Care

No effort on such a scale can be maintained without a significant amount of coordination, hence the role of Clinic Coordinator Melissa Swanson, RN, BSN, OCN. Like a multi-lingual guide in a foreign land, Melissa sticks with the patient during their appointments and leads them down the proper paths, never allowing them to get lost.

“I help coordinate each patient’s needs in and out of the multidisciplinary clinic and determine what is the right time to bring them in to meet with all of their doctors together,” she says. “As they sit down and meet with their health care team, I listen and take notes.”

The doctors will cover the steps the patient will have to take during the course of their treatment. “Those are all specific to that patient’s cancer,” Melissa stipulates. “Some involve systemic treatment with chemotherapy, some radiation, and some both; surgery is used as well sometimes. I go back over with the patient what their plan is and what they just discussed with the doctors and give them in layman’s terms the list for what our next step is.”

Melissa’s job does not end with the patient, of course. She is also responsible for coordinating care between the different entities involved in the patient’s journey. Springfield Clinic, UnityPoint Health, and OSF HealthCare surgeons and nurse coordinators are all orchestrated into producing the same positive result.

“We are in constant communication,” Melissa says. “We have a common goal which is: the patient first. We all work together in our specialties to deliver top-notch care to each patient.”

A Common Goal

In the majority of the country, it is exceedingly rare for so many medical experts representing so many healthcare entities to all sit down in the same room with one patient. “That’s what’s so special about this clinic,” admits Melissa. “It’s so nice for someone who’s going through cancer to sit together with all of their doctors and get the full team approach and ask the questions they need to ask.”

Dr. Candace Correa, the collaborating radiation oncologist from UnityPoint Health, indicates the advantage inherent in such a number of physicians coming together. “Illinois CancerCare is a large group so that each doctor is able to focus on one or a few types of cancer,” Dr. Correa states. “This means the doctor you see will be an expert in your cancer.”

“For patients, the knowledge of how and when to coordinate care with other specialties is of vital importance in providing streamlined and effective cancer care,” adds Dr. Stephen Stergios Tsoraides. He and Dr. Sonia Tewani Orcutt are Springfield Clinic’s experts in this collaborative effort.

Representing OSF HealthCare are Drs. Mackenzie McGee, Asif Quyyum, and Chandler Wilfong. “St. Francis Medical Center has a long history of multidisciplinary tumor clinics and tumor boards,” says Dr. McGee. “We are proud to continue to care for our community with teamwork and collaboration.”

The Cutting Edge

As certain films over the years have broken barriers in special effects or introduced new technology in movie making, the medical field also sees leaps that cannot be made without significant research first. Illinois CancerCare is a national leader in oncology research with enrolled clinical trial patients double that of the national average.

During ILCC cancer conferences, it is determined which patients would be good candidates for their upcoming studies. “If they’re a candidate, we would offer it to them,” announces Dr. Bajaj. “What we’re hoping is by bringing more patients through this type of format and creating an awareness of a platform like this, we can bring in even more studies and get more trials sponsored.”

More clinical trials are just the tip of the future medical iceberg, the doctor says. ILCC is also looking into incorporating promising new drugs earlier into treatment, researching how new combinations of proven drugs might be beneficial, incorporating genetic testing to prevent cancer in a person before it surfaces, and additional far more advanced methods.

Using artificial intelligence and data science could prove invaluable, for instance. “There may be ways to monitor with scans or blood tests to see if the treatment you’re on is working before we have to wait for a scan down the road,” she says.

The questions, Dr. Bajaj points out, are endless. “The more patients you see the more questions you can come up with,” she says. “And science always starts with a good question.”

The Right Emotions

Whether participating in a clinical trial, engaged in a round of chemotherapy, or recently receiving a diagnosis, emotion is always playing a role in the patient’s story. As humans are emotional beings, we are often subject to our feelings. They can drive us, push us, and, unfortunately, cripple us. Emotions can be a significant obstacle in the fight against cancer, as Melissa points out. “It’s so overwhelming at the beginning. The biggest way to keep a patient’s spirits up is by clarifying the plan. When they are overwhelmed with how they are going to get through all of this, especially as they first get the diagnosis and talking about chemotherapy or radiation, I clarify the plan for them multiple times and cut it into chunks. ‘This is what we’re doing now and how we get through this process.’”

Having a clarified plan with set dates and times and setting goals also helps a patient’s emotional journey. “I constantly reiterate, ‘Do this one day at time. You’ll have good days and you’ll have bad days but make sure to keep in mind that not all the days are bad days.’”

Melissa’s relationship with her patients cannot be understated. She’s with them from the very beginning and sticks with them as an added line of defense. When a slew of information is dumped upon the patient from multiple doctors, Melissa is there to help sift through it, interpret it, and answer questions.

“Supporting them through the process is paramount,” she declares. “People work through these things really well, especially if they have someone there to be their lifeline and help them through it.”

Your Journey, Your Story

As grand as some movies are, the cancer journey is far more epic than anything that has been shown on screen. It also requires the absolute dedication of a list of specialists and caregivers like those who join together at the ILCC’s Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Cancer Clinic.

Surgeons, oncologists, nurses, coordinators, and support staff may all work behind the scenes, but their united goal is to shine the light upon the hero of the story: the patient who, ultimately, cannot successfully prevail without them.