Report from our Medical Director: Celebrating Survival, Promoting Survivorship

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At Arlington Free Clinic, our staff understands that surviving cancer is something to be celebrated. However, patients don’t always understand that once treatment is complete, they still need to focus on being as healthy as possible. Last fall, during two Latina Breast Cancer Survivor Celebrations/Focus Groups, we introduced the concept of survivorship.

AFC staff outdid themselves preparing for our Survivor Celebrations, decorating the conference room with pink crepe paper and balloons, and preparing a tasty meal of pupusas and chocolate dipped strawberries for dessert. They wanted to make these gatherings special because when you pile a grueling treatment regimen on top of family responsibilities and unforgiving work schedules, women in poverty have few opportunities to talk about their cancer. The women were very open and highlighted several shared experiences that will help us better meet patients’ needs in the future.

For example, since patients in active treatment make frequent trips to Virginia Hospital Center – sometimes multiple visits per week – staff try to provide metro cards whenever resources allow. Women who received these cards emphasized the value of this travel assistance. Others mentioned the importance of being able to get food through Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC). This feedback underscored the importance of screening all of our cancer patients for social determinants of health such as food and housing needs. We also learned about challenges like language barriers and financial concerns – issues unique to our patient population that we can now work to address.

We wrapped up our Celebrations with a discussion about survivorship and life after treatment. The women shared their fear that the cancer would come back, and they had a lot of questions about what they could do to minimize the risk of recurrence. We invited a mental health counselor, an oncologist, and a nutritionist to three subsequent meetings with our breast cancer survivors so that they could ask questions and learn from these experts. During a session with Dr. Thomas Butler, a retired oncologist from Virginia Cancer Specialists (the practice that treats all of our cancer patients), our survivors learned about the importance of early detection of other types of cancer, and the ease of getting free screening at AFC.

When we think about our cancer patients, we must consider the lasting physical and emotional side-effects and the long-term impact of their treatment. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) developed a form called the Survivorship Care Plan that helps people diagnosed with cancer keep track of the medical care they may need in the future. AFC’s nursing staff received training on Survivor Care Plans and attended classes through Johns Hopkins University and Virginia Hospital Center’s Cancer Resource Center to learn about topics addressed through these institutions’ survivorship programs. We’re now in the process of completing the ASCO forms for our breast cancer patients, and the work we are doing with this group will eventually extend to and benefit our other cancer patients.