Helping Patients Live Long and Healthy Lives After Cancer

03.12.2018 Atrium Health News | Levine Cancer Institute | Cancer Care

In 2011, Mike Richardson, MD experienced medicine from a unique perspective – as a physician and as a patient. He learned he had a Stage IV carcinoid tumor, news that came with a 42 percent chance of five-year survival. His diagnosis was followed by a flurry of tests, appointments, surgeries and radiation treatments. “It was all about cancer all of the time,” he says.

His treatments were successful, and slowly the appointments slowed down. Yet beating cancer didn’t mean returning to normal.

“Once the initial testing and treatment was finished and successful, the merry-go-round suddenly stopped,” Dr. Richardson says. “While I was happy not to have my days so packed with a cancer-themed agenda, without all the visits, a lot of the support that I was experiencing seemed to disappear.”

Entering a New Chapter in Cancer Care

The experience led Dr. Richardson to design the Cancer Survivorship Medical Clinic at Atrium Health’s (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System’s) Levine Cancer Institute. The center – part of Levine Cancer Institute’s Center for Supportive Care and Survivorship, and the only one of its kind within 100 miles – provides cancer survivors with the support, care and knowledge they need to maintain good health after cancer. The mission of the center came from the expertise of a doctor and the empathy of a patient.

It’s an important solution at a critical time. Due to the increasing effectiveness of treatments, many cancers have evolved from fatal diagnoses to chronic diseases. By 2020, about 18 million Americans will be cancer survivors, including one of every five people over 65. This good news has created a new chapter in cancer care: how to treat the growing population of survivors for years and even decades after they overcome cancer. These survivors require specialized care, but few receive enough of it: Over 70 percent of cancer survivors have unmet medical needs.

Because many cancer survivors have a risk of cancer returning and an increased risk of developing another kind of cancer, the center offers screening and surveillance recommendations. The center educates patients about late-onset physical problems that survivors face, such as heart and bone problems that can emerge years after cancer treatments. The Survivorship Cardio-Oncology Clinic within the survivorship clinic works with patients to maintain heart health.

The center refers patients for genetic counseling as well. Physicians evaluate patients’ personal and family cancer histories for the likelihood of an inherited cancer gene. Of the breast cancer patients who came to the center last year, a third of them required genetic testing for a high-risk cancer gene.

“Genetic testing can benefit a family for generations to come,” says Dr. Richardson. “We discover who else in the family is at risk and make sure they’re properly cared for.”

The clinic also offers a wide range of emotional and psychological support for survivors. Like the late-onset physical problems, emotional and spiritual effects can emerge years later as well. Patient Laura Streelman has found these services invaluable in her journey through cancer.

“The Survivorship building has been like a second home for me,” Laura says. She meets with various specialists at the center, including neuropsychiatrists, psychologists and acupuncturists.

Thriving as a Long-Term Cancer Survivor

The survivorship center exists because of good news creating a new need. It’s no longer just about beating cancer; it’s about beating cancer and living a full, healthy life for years to come. And to do so, the survivorship center is there to help survivors navigate the chapters that follow their disease.

“As opposed to when I started medical practice 30 years ago, most patients currently diagnosed with one of the common adult cancers can expect to be a long-term survivor,” Dr. Richardson says. “This means that cancer patients need to pay attention to staying healthy – and that’s what we’re here to help them do.”

About Atrium Health

Atrium Health, previously Carolinas HealthCare System, one of the nation’s leading and most innovative healthcare organizations, provides a full spectrum of healthcare and wellness programs throughout the Southeast region. Its diverse network of care locations includes academic medical centers, hospitals, freestanding emergency departments, physician practices, surgical and rehabilitation centers, home health agencies, nursing homes and behavioral health centers, as well as hospice and palliative care services. Atrium Health works to enhance the overall health and well-being of its communities through high-quality patient care, education and research programs, and numerous collaborative partnerships and initiatives.