Healthy Living: Easing the Burden
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When Susan Beckwith, 51, of Wethersfield learned last year that her sore throat and the lump on her neck were actually cancer of the tongue, she didn’t spend any time researching what to do next. She headed straight to Hartford Hospital’s Helen & Harry Gray Cancer Center.
And when Lori Redmer, 43, of Westport found out in January that she had a rare form of aggressive breast cancer that strikes young women, she went to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for a second opinion. But in the end she decided to go with treatment and care at the Smilow Family Breast Health Center at Norwalk Hospital’s Whittingham Cancer Center—especially since she could participate in a clinical trial there.
What these women and thousands of other state residents have learned in recent years is that cancer care in Connecticut is now state-of-the-art, under one roof, patient-centered and usually available less than 40 minutes from home. That’s because 26 of the state’s 30 acute-care hospitals have cancer-care centers accredited by the American College of Surgeons, whose 36 standards cover diagnosis, treatment, physicians and staff, availability of clinical trials and support services. What’s more, these hospitals are guided by a federally mandated cancer-control plan developed by the Connecticut Cancer Partnership (ctcancerpartnership.org), a coalition of 300 cancer specialists from around the state that establishes the state’s goals and priorities for fighting the disease. The main goal is that care be evidence-based and cost-effective.
“Cancer care is an important part of what hospitals do,” says Andrew L. Salner, M.D., past chair of the Cancer Partnership and director of the Gray Cancer Center, which treats 3,000 new patients a year. “It probably represents 10 to 20 percent of their business. We’re fortunate that we have many good cancer centers in Connecticut that have excellent physicians and good resources and have invested heavily in their equipment.” As patients live longer, say doctors, this becomes even more important because patients’ relationships with cancer centers may continue for years for monitoring, treatment, wellness services and survivorship support.
The American Cancer Society estimates there are 11.7 million cancer survivors in the U.S. today, with 1.5 million new cases projected for 2010—20,750 of them in Connecticut, roughly the annual average. The good news is that cancer incidence and mortality rates have been dropping nationally and statewide for more than a decade, thanks to early detection and better treatment—even the five-year survival rate is inching toward 70 percent. The worrisome news, however, is that 41 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Connecticut doctors anticipate a rise in new cancer cases because of the state’s aging population, which is at higher risk (nationally, the median age at diagnosis is 66). Compounding the problem is the loss of jobs and health benefits, which prevent residents from getting regular screenings, and the fact that the population that has already experienced cancer risks recurrence. “My guess is that most centers are pretty much functioning at capacity,” says Salner. “That’s just how prevalent cancer is.” Virtually every family is impacted, he adds.
So how has the cancer-care community in Connecticut responded differently than, say, 10 years ago? Abe Lopman, executive director of Yale-New Haven’s new $500 million, 14-story Smilow Cancer Hospital, says the movement is toward individualized treatment plans created by teams from across the radiology, medical and surgical oncology disciplines, and integrative medicine that wraps support services around patients and their families to address their emotional and spiritual needs. These support services can include massage, art therapy, acupuncture, Reiki touch therapy, reflexology, yoga and dance classes, nutrition, aromatherapy, counseling, even pet therapy. Most cancer centers have weekly meetings where doctors review each new case and weekly meetings of the support team, which may include nurses, naturopathic physicians, psychologists and clergy.