A few years ago, there were only a couple of oral chemotherapy treatments to track. Now, there are close to 75.
A few years ago, there might have been one patient of the Don and Dana Myers Cancer Center in Seymour taking that form of treatment. Now, there are 16, with a high of 23 this past summer.
The local cancer center also now has a high-definition ear, nose and throat scope that allows doctors to get a clear image of head and neck cancers.
As technology and other advancements are made, education about treatments is ongoing for doctors and nurses who work with cancer patients.
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“It’s pretty cool to think that our technology is getting sophisticated enough that we are actually making specific treatment plans for the patients,” said Heidi Leinart, a certified chemotherapy nurse at the cancer center.
Leinart said oral chemotherapies have been around for a while, but they have drastically increased in numbers in the past 18 months.
Once Dr. Dolores Olivarez determines what type of cancer a patient has, she presents treatment options — intravenous or pill form — and helps that person choose the right one.
If the patient chooses the pill form, Leinart said it’s their job to educate the patient on when and how to take the medication.
“There’s a lot of education of just respecting the medication,” she said.
One of the challenges is not having the same type of in-person interaction with patients that they would have if they were taking chemo by IV.
“When they come in for IV, we get to know them, we get to talk to them, ‘How are your symptoms?’ ‘Are you having any problems?’” Leinart said. “When they are at home, we are relying on them just to call us or we’ll call and check in on them, but you don’t get the same eyeballing your patient as they walk in the door.”
The pills come from specialty pharmacies and are mailed to patients. Those pharmacies have nurses who call patients and check up on them, and they relay information to the cancer center staff.
“Those specialty pharmacies realize the respect that these oral chemos need to have, and it’s really nice to have those nurse educators out there because they educate me, they educate Dr. Olivarez, they educate the patients,” Leinart said.
The cancer center staff also can share educational materials provided by the drug companies with patients, and they keep up-to-date on the trends by attending conferences and subscribing to medical journals.
For some people, the oral treatments work better because they don’t have to travel to and from the cancer center as often. Leinart said they have changed some people’s treatments because transportation has been an issue.
“It’s just growing pains as we kind of get more comfortable allowing the patient to have a little bit more freedom,” Leinart said.
Another issue for some people is the cost of oral treatments, some of which can have a copay of $2,000 per month. But Leinart said there are grants available through different foundations that will help cover the copay.
In some cases now, she said the pill form of cancer treatment is the only option available.
“We’ve seen some wonderful results, people who may have gotten three or four different types of IV chemo and kind of at the end of their line given them this pill, and it’s like, ‘Wow! I’m doing better,’” Leinart said. “There have been a lot of those advancements here lately that we’ve actually seen the quality of life improve on these pills.”
The difference nowadays is the increase in targeted therapy, which helps determine the oral treatment someone should receive based on their type of cancer.
“It’s just targeting down to that actual tumor type, and it’s more specific, and you’re getting better results,” Leinart said. “This targeted therapy is really narrowing down and getting to the heart of the tumor.”
Most of the time, she said, a patient will have less severe side effects with the pill form, so that improves the quality of life.
Leinart said the newest oral treatments have been developed for those with metastatic disease, which is when cancer has spread from the place where it originated to another place in the body. That has given them more treatment options.
“A lot of the oral chemos that are coming out are giving those patients option C and option D, where before, they had A and B and then hospice,” she said. “It’s giving not only patients we’re trying to cure but patients that we cannot cure more quantity and quality of life, which that’s pretty cool to see.”
The high-definition scope also has made an impact on how the cancer center treats its patients with head and neck cancers.
When a patient comes in for a consultation, Dr. Higinia Cardenes will initially scope them. Then during radiation therapy treatments, she will use the scope to make sure there aren’t any obstructions and see if the tumor is decreasing.
During that process, Cardenes can view what she is scoping on a monitor, and that video can be shared with the patient. The scope also can be used during followup visits when patients are off of their treatment.
“It’s very precise, very clear, so she has a very good picture of what’s inside there,” said Dana Prieto, a radiation oncology nurse at the cancer center.
Before the cancer center received the scope more than two months ago, a patient would have had to go to an ear, nose and throat specialist for a scope.
Now, Cardenes can do that at the Seymour facility.
“I feel like the technology is allowing us to keep our patients here,” Prieto said. “It’s such a benefit to our patients.”
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For information about the Don and Dana Myers Cancer Center, call 812-522-0480 or visit the center at 411 W. Tipton St., Seymour.