How hospitalists fit into cancer care

Being admitted to the hospital for complications related to cancer or your treatment can be scary and stressful. But hospitalists will help you during your stay. These specialized members of the medical team often have a background in internal medicine but they’re specialized in order to coordinate care seamlessly and help patients navigate through their time at the hospital. To understand the role our hospitalists play in a patient’s cancer treatment and care, we spoke with Marina George, M.D. Here’s what patients and caregivers should know. What does a hospitalist do? The hospitalist is your attending physician while you’re in the hospital. Our job is to synchronize all of your care — including diagnose you, treat you, help you recover — and make your hospital stay as smooth as possible. When our patients check into our hospital, they aren’t just coming with cancer – they have an entire medical history that we take into consideration, such as diabetes, heart disease or arthritis. The hospitalist coordinates your regular clinic or outpatient care team – such as your radiation oncologist, surgeon and/or medical oncologist – and also your inpatient care team, such as nurses and any specialists you may need to see. And we care for you during your entire hospital stay, from when you walk through the door to when you’re discharged. Our goal is to getting you recovered, out of the hospital and back to your cancer treatment in an outpatient setting as quickly and safely as possible. How do hospitalists coordinate care? We’re your medical voice. Patients don’t always know the questions to ask to have an informed,...

4 lessons I’ve learned from the other side of the stethoscope

As a pediatrician, I’m not sure if my familiarity with disease has made my fight against colorectal cancer easier or harder. What I can tell you is that I’ve learned more about health and well-being from being on the other side of the stethoscope than I ever could’ve by just going to medical school. Here are the four biggest lessons I’ve learned. Don’t ignore your body’s warning signs. Fortunately, I’ve never had to diagnose colorectal cancer in one of my own patients. However, I did learn the warning signs in medical school. Bloody stools, bowel changes and abdominal pains are all symptoms of colon cancer. And I experienced all three for months before I finally sought treatment. But I was only 37 at the time. So I explained away my symptoms or minimized them. I realize now that I was in denial. Use every tool you have to fight back. After being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I studied the connections between diet and disease extensively. I learned that while conventional cancer treatments do save lives, diet, exercise and mindfulness are also powerful medicines. I started preparing and enjoying more whole-food, plant-based dishes. I exercised when I could, and I took up meditation. The benefits were immediate. When I ate properly, my energy returned much more quickly after chemotherapy. I also felt better and my complexion improved. Find a friend or family member who can advocate for you. This is someone who can help you remember information at appointments, and make sure your needs are being met when you’re really sick or just not thinking clearly. My strongest advocate is...

Stereotactic body radiation therapy: a new option for pancreatic cancer patients

A decade ago, pancreatic cancer was treated with five to six weeks of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Patients often experienced side effects that drastically impacted their quality of life and saw little survival benefit. But a type of radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is now offering some pancreatic cancer patients a better option. We spoke with Joseph Herman, M.D., to learn more. What makes stereotactic body radiation therapy different? Standard radiation therapies use a wider beam with a lower dose over a longer period of time. But SBRT is like a laser beam. We can deliver a more precise, higher dose of radiation in a shorter amount of time. So, whereas standard radiation therapy requires weeks of treatment, SBRT requires only five days, preferably consecutively. And each session is about 40 minutes, so there’s much less disruption to patients’ lives.   Also, because SBRT is so effective, it may reduce the need for long-term chemotherapy for some patients. How is stereotactic body radiation therapy more precise? SBRT has a narrower beam of radiation that allows us to more precisely target the tumor. Also, when a patient breathes, the tumor moves about a centimeter. To protect normal tissues from radiation exposure, we can track the tumor’s movement during breathing and activate the radiation beam only when the body is in a certain position. Or we can have the patient hold his or her breath for a few seconds and radiate the tumor when the body is still. And to better target the radiation beam, we can implant two or three fiducials, which are gold markers the size...

Leukemia specialist: Identifying new treatments is the most gratifying part of my job

Because standard treatments have failed for so many patients, our goal at MD Anderson is to have a clinical trial available for everybody who walks through the door. Whether they involve entirely new therapies or new combinations of approved drugs, clinical trials are intended to be an advance in medicine — to offer patients something better than what’s currently out there. That’s why it’s so important to get an accurate diagnosis from the beginning. Different types of even one disease can call for vastly different treatment protocols. And we want to provide our patients with the right therapies from the outset — because our goal is to cure the disease, not just treat the symptoms. The MD Anderson difference: expertise and personalized care Any patient who walks through our doors — whether it’s for their first consultation or a second opinion — is going to get a complete workup. And because we perform tests that aren’t usually done by doctors elsewhere, such as bone marrow biopsies and genetic mutation tests, about 20-30% of the time, patients’ diagnoses will actually change. Once we know definitively what each patient has, we can individualize and personalize the best treatment for them, based on their disease’s characteristics. With leukemia — which is my specialty — there are essentially two types: chronic and acute. Acute leukemia is aggressive and very fast-growing, so it usually causes a quick change in someone’s health. Often, those patients need urgent treatment. Chronic leukemia, on the other hand, is slower-growing, so it doesn’t always need treatment right away. It’s usually picked up during a routine physical exam. The best...

Sarcoma survivor finds his way to remission at MD Anderson

As a high school soccer player, Alex Frankenfeld often heard his coach say, “Busca la forma,” which is Spanish for “Find a way.” Three years later, Alex was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma, and the phrase became a mantra that helped him get through the experience.  “I’m going to do whatever I can to beat this thing,” Alex told his mother on their first trip to MD Anderson in fall 2015. “Mom, I’m going to find a way.” Spotting soft tissue sarcoma symptoms Alex had just started his junior year at the University of Oklahoma when he began noticing sarcoma symptoms: frequent urination, constipation and back pain so intense he found himself in the emergency room. A CT scan revealed an 11-inch mass in his pelvis. He was diagnosed with stage II leiomyosarcoma, a very rare type of soft tissue sarcoma. At the time, Alex was only 21. After Alex received his diagnosis from a doctor in Dallas, he made two important decisions: he was coming to MD Anderson for soft tissue sarcoma treatment – his parents heard it was the best- and he was putting college on hold. He cancelled his plans to study abroad in Paris and took the spring semester off to focus on his health. “In some ways, it was a hard decision,” he says. “But in other ways, it was easy. My life was so much important than anything else.” Coming to MD Anderson for soft tissue sarcoma treatment Alex had his first appointment at MD Anderson’s the Sarcoma Center December 2015, where he was greeted by a social work counselor, who told him...