By Becky Wiese
More and more cancer is becoming a chronic disease instead of an immediate death sentence. The improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer has drastically changed since 1979 when Mid-Illinois Hematology and Oncology Associates (MIHOA) began serving the Bloomington-Normal and central Illinois community. What used to be considered a death sentence is now often treatable, with prolonged survival. Although still serious, cancer does not always have the same dire end result as it has in the past.
Dr. Pramern Sriratana has been in practice at MIHOA since its inception. Interestingly enough, one of the most notable changes he’s seen in the treatment of cancer in central Illinois has nothing to do with a drug, a machine, a technological breakthrough, or a surgical strategy.
Instead, the progress has been defined by the partnership of the two local hospitals, BroMenn (now Advocate BroMenn) and OSF St. Joseph. The administration and governing boards of the hospitals, along with the support of the Bloomington-Normal community and many other local medical and non-medical personnel worked to create a place specifically designed to enhance the lives of the community at large: the Community Cancer Center.
Focusing on the Community
“Cooperation between hospitals like that found in the Community Cancer Center is exceptionally rare,” says Dr. Sriratana. “The Cancer Center had the support of both hospitals from the very start, so patients didn’t have to pick where to go for cancer treatment. For example, they [the hospitals] worked together to purchase a state-of-the-art PET scanner instead of individually spending money for a mobile option. Sharing resources and working together has been done for the good of the patients and the community.” Mid-Illinois Hematology and Oncology Associates is the only oncology practice housed on-site at the center.
Since the completion of the $9 million renovation and expansion in 2015, the Community Cancer Center can provide a comprehensive umbrella for patients to get the best quality care. “This is truly a ‘community’ clinic — most of the employees and physicians live here and are active members in the community, giving them a vested interest in care for our citizens,” says Dr. John Migas, who has been practicing at MIHOA since 1997.
The collaboration of the local hospitals and physicians is enhanced by community members that support the Cancer Center in other ways. More than 100 volunteers give their time and expertise in activities such as greeting patients and their families at the reception area or sharing their skill as master gardeners in the landscaping around the facility, as well as offering comforting and friendly conversation during some of the difficult times while undergoing chemotherapy.
Expanded and Upgraded Facility
The physicians of MIHOA, which include Dr. Hwan Gon Jeong, Dr. Bhanu Vakkalanka, and Drs. Sriratana and Migas, along with the support staff appreciate the collaboration and combined efforts of all who make the Community Cancer Center what it is. Plus, MIHOA’s own goal for excellent care has been duly noted through earning the designation of a QOPI (Quality Oncology Practice Initiative) certification from ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology), which indicates compliance with national standards for the highest quality of care. This designation shows the level of commitment that the oncology and hematology practice has for achieving the best possible results for their patients. The newly upgraded facility offers a convenient and comfortable environment for virtually all the services a patient would need under one roof.
The Community Cancer Center design has been patient-oriented even to the finest details such as the butterfly garden located near the treatment area where patients have the view of a vast array of flowers and a flurry of butterflies in their midst. “These kinds of things [environment] add a special, intangible, and very important element to the treatment process,” says Dr. Migas.
Making the process of treating cancer easier for the patient is certainly a notable benefit of the Cancer Center’s renovations and expansion. Certain features make it easier on the physicians as well. For example, the conference room seats 20 or more people and has the latest in technological devices for sharing information. This room is where the “Tumor Board” meets on a weekly basis to discuss cases and enhance patient care.
“Treating cancer is a team effort,” says Dr. Sriratana. The Tumor Board is a multidisciplinary group of physicians that gather “strictly for the good of the patients. There is no extra monetary gain or benefit for the doctors,” adds Dr. Migas. They discuss cases, review test results, examine x-rays, and consider next steps on a patient-by-patient basis. Attendees of these meetings regularly include the radiation and medical oncologists, pathologists, surgeons, primary care doctors, and others that have insight on details of the cases.
It’s helpful to have many of the physicians under one roof, not only for meetings to discuss the various aspects of each specialty’s affect or input in treating cancer, but for real-time conversations. Simply walking down the hall to have a quick discussion is much easier than trying to send texts or e-mails or traveling to another facility to meet face-to-face.
When multiple parts of treating cancer patients can be more efficiently navigated from the physicians’ perspective — things like being in the same facility with diagnostic technology and down the hall from an expert in radiation oncology, plus having easy access to support services for your patients — the entire process becomes more efficient and effective, which ultimately benefits the patients.
Also under the expanded roof of the Community Cancer Center reside most of the medications, equipment, and personnel a cancer patient would need during the course of treatment. A patient could literally see the medical oncologist for an office visit, receive a chemotherapy treatment, and then walk to another part of the facility for a radiation treatment — all during the same visit.
Eliminating the need for driving to a hospital or other facility for one of these services is a huge benefit to patients, as this type of concomitant treatment is common protocol for several types of cancers, including breast, lung, esophageal, and rectal. “Patients may not be feeling well at times during the course of their treatment, so being able to have everything done at one location helps decrease the discomfort caused by traveling,” says Dr. Migas.
Diagnostic equipment, such as CT and PET scanners, lab, and pharmacy services also “live” under the Cancer Center roof, making it easy for a patient to get almost everything take care of in one convenient stop.
Additional benefits include support services such as an extensive resource library, a chapel, even a small café where patients and caregivers can get snacks and drinks throughout the course of their stay.
Comprehensive Treatment Often Includes Participation in Clinical Trials
Along with the state-of-the-art facility and medical care, the physicians of MIHOA encourage their patients to participate in clinical trials when possible. These studies have specific criteria that must be met in order for a patient to qualify, as well as a clearly defined course of action regarding the drug or treatment process for the focused goal of the trial.
Generally speaking, clinical trials can focus on treatment, prevention, screening, or quality of life issues. The research and subsequent information gleaned from clinical trials help make advances in how cancer will be diagnosed, treated, and even prevented in the future. Successful drugs and treatment protocols become the standard of care for future patients.
A few of the “hot” trial drugs currently being studied include those that target specific parts of the cancer cells themselves. These specific genetic targets may be involved with the growth, progression, or spread of the cancer. Referred to as immunotherapy, the targeted therapies not only stop the cancer from growing and spreading, but also are less detrimental physically to the overall health and well-being of the patient. They do this by enhancing the body’s own natural immune system, specifically T-cells, which are a type of white blood cell, to fight the cancer cells.
Immunotherapy drugs differ in how they fight the cancer cells in comparison to how chemotherapy works. Target drugs act only on the molecular target, a specific protein for example, associated with the cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs typically attacks all cells — normal and cancerous. Target drugs are designed to interact with, and only with, the intended portion of the cancer cells to block that cell from continued growth.
As a result, targeted therapy drugs are much “smarter” than most chemotherapy drugs because they only affect the cancer cells. The benefit: fewer adverse side effects and greater effectiveness.
“Clinical trials have shown great potential and results for drugs such as nivolumab and pembrolizumab, both of which have seen successful results for melanoma and non-small cell lung cancers,” says Dr. Migas. “A similar drug, palbociclib, has been successful in treating breast cancer.”
Pembrolizumab was recently cited as one of the immunotherapy drugs used to treat former President Jimmy Carter’s metastatic melanoma. This drug, along with highly targeted radiation therapy, appears to have stopped the cancer in its tracks, as he responded very well after a few months of treatment. Diagnosed in early summer 2015, Mr. Carter reported a few months later in December that an MRI showed not only no new spots, but the original lesions were gone as well. Early detection has also been cited as a benefit to stopping the cancer’s spread and growth.
This high-profile example of a successful outcome using state-of-the-art therapy shows positive strides in the treatment of cancer. The physicians of Mid-Illinois Hematology and Oncology Associates are proud to offer their central Illinois community this type of cutting edge medical care right here at home.
For more information, you may contact Mid-Illinois Hematology & Oncology Associates, Ltd. At 309-452-9701 or online at www.mihoaonline.org. They are an independent QOPI Certified practice located inside the Community Cancer Center at 407 E. Vernon Avenue in Normal.
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