There was a time when receiving a cancer diagnosis felt like a death sentence. That’s no longer the case thanks to advances in prevention, detection, treatment, and follow-up care.
“We are identifying the causes for cancer,” said Leon Hwang, MD, a medical oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in the Mid-Atlantic States. “We are developing therapies that are specific to each patient’s cancer and new therapies using the immune system that have far fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. This is a time for new hope.”
That progress is reflected in a dramatic increase in the number of cancer survivors. In 1971, there were 3 million cancer survivors in the United States. That number grew to 16.9 million by January 2019, according to the National Cancer Institute, representing 5% of the U.S. population.
The National Cancer Survivors Day Foundation defines anyone living with a history of cancer as a survivor — from the moment of their diagnosis to the end of their life. The group holds an annual recognition of cancer survivors in June, and many of Kaiser Permanente’s medical centers participate by celebrating survivors and offering programs on topics ranging from cancer-fighting diets to cancer and sexuality.
While the chances of surviving cancer are better than ever before, survivors still face many health concerns. These include the possibility of a cancer recurrence, health problems caused by cancer treatments, and lingering symptoms such as fatigue and foggy thinking.
Emotional challenges can be equally devastating. “Many patients live in fear of a cancer recurrence, and that can lead to spiritual and existential distress,” said Edward Tsong, MD, a surgical oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in the Mid-Atlantic States specializing in cancers of the head and neck. “Cancer patients can also experience depression and anxiety, and many struggle with their body image and sexuality.”
“Our integrated system makes it easier for us to care for the whole person and support members throughout their cancer journey,” Dr. Tsong added. “So if a patient needs speech therapy after surgery for oral cancer, I can reach out to a colleague right away and arrange for a consultation. And if a patient is dealing with stress or depression, I can quickly connect them with the support they need.”
A commitment to prevention and early detection is the foundation of Kaiser Permanente’s approach to cancer care. Our members’ screening schedules are customized based on their age, health history, and other risk factors. As a screening date approaches, they receive reminders to set up any needed appointments.
“Once you have had cancer, you are at a higher risk for developing a second cancer, so proactive screening is essential,” said Anita Lee, MD, a radiation oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California who helped launch the annual Cancer Survivors Day event at the Santa Clara Medical Center. “Our screening rates for colorectal, breast, and cervical cancer are all well above the national average. That allows us to catch cancers at an early stage when they are easier to treat and there’s a better chance for a cure.”
Speed to treatment is another advantage of Kaiser Permanente’s integrated approach.
“As soon as someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, they’re scheduled to be seen at our Multidisciplinary Breast Cancer Clinic where they have a chance to meet with a breast surgeon, medical oncologist, and radiation oncologist all in one day,” said Dr. Lee. “That same series of appointments might take up to a month to complete at a different health system.”
Care for survivors doesn’t end with the conclusion of active treatment. To smooth the transition back to their primary care providers, members receive cancer survivorship plans summarizing their treatment history, follow-up recommendations, and possible future side effects. They continue to receive reminders for needed screenings, and since their treatment history is documented in the electronic health record, any care provider they encounter has access to this important information.
Educational programs teach survivors about lifestyle changes that can help prevent recurrences, and resources that can improve their quality of life.
“Our goal is to help cancer survivors thrive by maximizing their recovery and promoting their health,” said Dr. Lee.
Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s 360-degree approach to cancer care.