Oct 23

Cancer in Seniors: Upgraded Facilities

by Dillon Kato

Montana cancer treatment facilities are expanding to better serve their patients.

As a person enters their senior years, the best thing they can do to for themselves to stay on top of the risk of cancer is regular screenings and tests, said Dr. Jorge Nieva, the chairman of hematology and oncology at Billings Clinic.

This means annual mammograms for women and having a colonoscopy every 10 years.

“It’s proven to save lives. There is no debate after the age of 50. There is a survival benefit,” Nieva said.

Half of the people in the United States diagnosed with colon cancer will die of the disease. “Many of those deaths could have been prevented if they had a colonoscopy when they were 50,” he said. He also recommended that people, especially smokers, have a CT scan for lung cancer.

The Billings Clinic currently has six medical oncologists, three radiation oncologists and two gynecologic oncologists, all who practice what Nieva terms “multidisciplinary care,” where there is good teamwork between cancer specialists, primary care physicians and other specialists. In addition to physicians, Billings Clinic also has dieticians, social workers, genetic counselors and physical therapists based in the cancer center.

This collaboration means patients receive care that is more targeted to their specific needs. “Let’s say a patient completes chemotherapy and needs to engage in physical rehabilitation. We don’t just write a prescription and send them across town,” Nieva said. Instead, the therapist can come in, interact with oncologists and see cardiology history to make sure they aren’t pushing a patient too hard.

Nieva also recognizes the importance of care that is close to home. Billings Clinic specialists spend 17 days each month traveling to smaller rural communities in Montana Wyoming and North Dakota to give them access to top quality care.

In Missoula, the most recent cancer treatment news is the opening of a new, $15 million cancer center at Community Medical Center. The Community Cancer Care Center, which opened at the end of September, gives the hospital room to grow and meet the rising demand for cancer care, said Community Medical Center CEO Steve Carlson.

Carlson cited a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences that identified what he called the “Crisis in cancer care today.” The study concluded that the growth in demand for cancer services is set to grow by 40 percent by the year 2030, and that too often, the care that is available is very fragmented.

“To make sure that we can handle that demand, we designed the new center to be able to double, and in some cases triple our previous spaces for specific treatments,” Carlson said. The former 4,000 square foot cancer center that opened five years ago was almost immediately at capacity, but once the full space of the new center is opened, it will total more than 28,000 square feet.

In addition, the new center is designed to be added on to in the future. The support and office space was made so that if demand requires it, that staff can be moved elsewhere, and those offices can be converted into more clinical space.

Along with the new center, Community partnered with Billings Clinic to bring a board certified gynecologic oncologist to the center twice a month. “This partnership means we bring decades of experience together from day one,” Carlson said.

Dr. Patrick Beatty, a medical oncologist working at the new Community cancer center, said that while they have always done state of the art treatment, the increase in space means patients will experience a lower stress atmosphere.

It also means that there will be more space to ramp up clinical trials, he said, and service patients at a radiation therapy wing, scheduled to open in the new center next spring.

Beatty is a part of Montana Cancer Specialists, a separate organization of radiologists that splits its physicians’ time between Community Medical Center and Providence St. Patrick Hospital.

Providence St. Patrick medical oncologist Dr. Michael Snyder, who works in its Montana Cancer Center, said healthy lifestyles contribute to a reduced risk of cancers and other diseases. A diet containing fresh fruits, vegetables and lean protein, as well as maintaining an exercise regime or having an active lifestyle are important for all seniors.

Snyder stressed the importance of having a primary care physician that a person visits regularly, who can make sure a patient is receiving preventive care and proper screening tests. “Early detection is important, and gives you the best opportunity for a cure,” Snyder said.

The Montana Cancer Center makes sure its physicians and support staff work together to be what Snyder calls a patient’s “healthcare team,” that is integrated from primary care to diagnosis and through treatment and recovery. This is a move that many specialist care clinics across the country have been moving toward, as it more closely tailors a patient’s care to their specific needs.

The Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute in Great Falls uses a cutting edge technology, called the CyberKnife system, for pinpoint accurate cancer treatment. CyberKnife is a non invasive radiosurgery that allows for outpatient treatment of malignant and benign tumors that might otherwise be inoperable, said Betsy Smith, who works at Benefis as a genetic counselor in its cancer center.

Smith said patients come from across the region and Canada, as Great Falls is the only place in the state with the CyberKnife technology.

CyberKnife uses a higher dose of radiation therapy than what would normally administered through more traditional beam radiation treatment. It can also be positioned at a wider variety of angles, to better isolate tumors. Because it is computer assisted, it can accomplish highly advanced procedures, such as tracking a tumor in the lungs and even taking into account its movement when a patient breathes.

Smith’s own work in genetic counseling means she works with families where there seems to be a high risk of cancers or unusual cancers with a hereditary pattern of risk.

“Ten percent of cancers are part of a hereditary cancer syndrome, where the family has a high risk gene that is related to specific cancers. I look at an individual’s personal history or family history to see if they have this type of risk,” she said.

For example, some families might have a history of Lynch syndrome. This raises the risk of colon cancer from around six percent to 80 percent. If this link can be established, colonoscopies and other tests could start in a person’s 20s or 30s, and treatment could begin while the disease is still in its precancer form, Smith said.

Even people who may have already diagnosed with cancer can benefit from genetic counseling and testing. Information from genetic testing could be able to see patterns for their children or relatives or spots links to other types of cancer. Genetic counseling and testing can also establish certain types of heart
disease and dementia (including Alzheimer’s).

Smith, who also oversees Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute’s national accreditation, said the center has been recognized as a premier cancer program since the 1980s.

No comments yet.

Add a comment