Progress in the fight against cancer has produced a need: Survivorship care, or the care of patients who have survived cancer.
Since the 1970s, the number of cancer survivors has tripled and today includes one of every 20 American adults. One in five people will be affected by cancer in some way. Physical and emotional changes brought on by cancer or its treatment can affect patients and families for years.
To address this need, Wake Forest Baptist Health is establishing a Cancer Survivorship Clinic at its Comprehensive Cancer Center to support patients, families and caregivers as they plan for life after cancer.
Stacy Wentworth, MD, assistant professor of Radiation Oncology and the clinic’s medical director, describes survivorship as an acknowledgment of the needs that follow cancer treatment. Care teams do a good job of navigating patients through treatment, she says, but have been less involved with what follows it.
“For patients, it’s like they’re on this train of diagnosis and treatment,” Wentworth says. “Then that train screeches to a halt. The patients step off, the train moves on and we as providers pick up the next patient. Patients and their family members often wonder ‘What’s next? What am I going to do? How are they going to monitor me through follow-up treatment? Is cancer going to come back?’”
The survivorship clinic, its staff and resources are designed to help fill this void. Clinic staff will monitor medical needs and more, offering support for a wide range of quality-of-life issues and concerns such as fear of cancer recurrence, return to wellness and financial burden.
The process begins with an orientation visit, where survivors meet with a clinic physician with expertise in survivorship issues and cancer care. Survivors will receive a comprehensive, personalized care plan that includes a summary of cancer treatment pre-survivorship, recommendations for follow-up care, and strategies for coping and for promoting health.
The clinic—believed to be the first of its kind—is based on a successful breast cancer survivorship clinic in Clemmons, N.C. Wentworth says other cancer survivors now will have dedicated resources not previously available.
“Cancer survivors are coming in to receive care,” she says. “What we haven’t done up to now is to identify this as a transition period for them. Similar to the transition from their life before cancer, this is now life in the aftermath of cancer. That’s really an innovative idea.”
Providing the clinic for survivors also should help other cancer patients who need care.
“We’re having a hard time getting new patients into our providers’ schedules because providers are seeing so many survivors,” Wentworth says. “We’re trying to open up availability for new patients while also providing survivors with a safe place and enhanced services. They’ll get more from the survivorship clinic than they will from their provider.”
The clinic team is expected to begin seeing cancer survivors this summer with a larger formal opening planned for the fall. It will be located on the second floor of the Comprehensive Cancer Center near the Cancer Patient Support Program offices.
The clinic will be set up intentionally to not resemble a doctor’s exam room, so patients won’t feel as if it’s just another doctor’s visit. The plan is to offer half-days for survivors of specific cancers—for example, lung cancer patients on Friday mornings—to more effectively group resources that those survivors need.
“We are pledging that every survivor will have an orientation visit, and they’re going to be cared for by people they recognize from their care team,” Wentworth says.
“We are planting the flag and saying, we are offering survivorship. Our goal is to offer survivorship for every cancer survivor, and it’s not based on the patient asking for the referral. It’s based on the fact that you are a cancer survivor, and you deserve survivorship.”