2017-10-29 / Insight

October NATIONAL BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH

Karmanos Cancer Institute offers world-class care in Lapeer
BY NICHOLAS PUGLIESE
810-452-2601 • npugliese@mihomepaper.com


According to a 2015 survey, 48 percent of Lapeer-area respondents had no idea Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Lapeer Region was there, but for the more than 12,000 patients that go through its doors annually, the facility provides state-of-the-art cancer treatments and nearly 40 dedicated staff, right in Lapeer’s backyard. 
Photos by Nicholas Pugliese According to a 2015 survey, 48 percent of Lapeer-area respondents had no idea Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Lapeer Region was there, but for the more than 12,000 patients that go through its doors annually, the facility provides state-of-the-art cancer treatments and nearly 40 dedicated staff, right in Lapeer’s backyard. Photos by Nicholas Pugliese LAPEER — Few words are more life-altering than “cancer.” When the word is uttered by a physician as part of a diagnosis, a patient’s life becomes focused on those six letters, and often, the first step in the road to battling that nefarious disease is confusing — patients feel overwhelmed, lost in the dark.

But there’s a light illuminating the road to recovery right here in Lapeer. Karmanos Cancer Institute (KCI) at McLaren Lapeer Region, located directly behind the hospital on a short pathway at the intersection of Knollwood and Barry drives, is home to 35 employees, and in 2016, oversaw the treatment plans of approximately 12,600 patients diagnosed with cancer in some form.


Stacie Smith (right), a Lapeer resident, mother of three and stage 3 breast cancer survivor, spoke before a second-grade class from Schickler Elementary during a visit by students to Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Lapeer Region, while KCI Oncology Patient Navigator Debbie Bell looks on. Stacie Smith (right), a Lapeer resident, mother of three and stage 3 breast cancer survivor, spoke before a second-grade class from Schickler Elementary during a visit by students to Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Lapeer Region, while KCI Oncology Patient Navigator Debbie Bell looks on. Oncology Patient Navigator Debbie Bell

Whenever a patient steps through the doors at KCI, they meet Debbie Bell, oncology patient navigator, who, if KCI is the light on the road to recovery, is the lighthouse keeper. “Basically, I see myself as a human GPS,” she said. “Cancer treatment is a journey, and most (patients) don’t know where to begin. I’m basically just their friend through it all.”


KCI Oncology Program Coordinator Tammy Brown chatted with students during the visit and later facilitated the lively fish-naming process. 
Photos by Nicholas Pugliese KCI Oncology Program Coordinator Tammy Brown chatted with students during the visit and later facilitated the lively fish-naming process. Photos by Nicholas Pugliese Bell’s role at KCI is to offer guidance and support to patients attempting to navigate the complex healthcare system. Oncology patient navigators like Bell are the designated point people for patients to contact with any and all needs, from financial concerns to advice or just for someone to talk to. Bell’s job is to break down, or at least limit, barriers between the patient and their treatment.

“Financial barriers tend to be the biggest for patients,” she said. “They get overloaded, it’s a lot. I try to steer them through and let them know that we’re a team.”

According to Bell, understanding a diagnosis and treatment plan can be difficult for patients, and oncology patient navigators exist to serve in that crucial role in helping explain diagnoses in a way that allows patients to understand their disease and the prescribed treatment — a method that results in patients becoming more engaged in their own care and enables them to adhere more closely to their treatment regimen.


Schickler Elementary second-grader students visited Karmanos Cancer Institute to color art that the halls of the facility, as well as vote to name two new fish that reside in KCI’s lobby fish tank. The students voted, and the names of the fish are now Chewbacca and Lightning. Schickler Elementary second-grader students visited Karmanos Cancer Institute to color art that the halls of the facility, as well as vote to name two new fish that reside in KCI’s lobby fish tank. The students voted, and the names of the fish are now Chewbacca and Lightning. Bell was the first person Stacie Smith of Lapeer worked with at KCI. Smith is a breast cancer survivor, now 31 years old and a mother to three children, aged 11, nine and five. In 2014, she noticed a small, pea-sized lump in her right breast, and was told “it was probably just a cyst or fibroid” because her age and genetic testing indicated the risk of breast cancer was low. The following year, she noticed a second lump. Again, following an ultrasound, she was told there wasn’t anything to worry about.

“Four days before Christmas, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in my right breast,” she said. “I had two separate tumors side by side, one invasive and the other noninvasive.” Immediately after the new year, in January of 2017, she began a six-cycle chemotherapy regimen, which caused hair loss, leading to Smith becoming bald. On May 4, she had her final round of chemo, and in June underwent a bilateral mastectomy with Dr. Pamela Johnson and Dr. Guillermina Nava of Karmanos Cancer Center at the Detroit Medical Center.

Multidisciplinary Breast Clinic

“Breast cancer is unfortunately the most common form of cancer in Lapeer County,” said Dr. Omar Gayar. Gayar has been a radiation oncologist with KCI’s Lapeer, Owosso and Flint locations for about a year after finishing his post-doctoral training at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, and is also part of KCI’s Multidisciplinary Breast Clinic.

The Multidisciplinary Breast Clinic (MBDC) at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Lapeer Region was designed to reduce the time from breast cancer diagnosis to treatment.

The MDBC team features cancer specialists from multiple departments including surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, patient navigation, social work, radiology and pathology coming together to discuss and evaluate treatment options for each patient and develop individualized comprehensive treatment plans.

“It’s a heavy and efficient line of communication and we can very effectively get (patients) in and get them the treatment they need,” said Gayar. “It’s a multidisciplinary approach that gets the best outcome and results, including improving the quality of life and the tolerability of treatments.”

Specific members of the MDBC team will meet with each patient on each clinic day, held Tuseday mornings at 8:30 a.m., to discuss their diagnosis and explain the team’s consensus recommendations. “This approach allows the patient to meet with members of their care team in a single visit at one location,” said KCI Oncology Program Director Tammy Brown. “Before the patient leaves that day, they’ll have all of their appointments set and will know the next steps.”

According to Dr. Gayar, one of the biggest positives of a system like KCI’s MDBC is its effect of reducing a patient’s fear of the unknown.

“It’s a lot of information for the patient, but I think that it takes some of that fear away to have that info, so they’ll know what to expect,” he said. “(A breast cancer diagnosis) is very daunting, it’s hard to understand what’s to come later, and I think it’s very helpful that we’re all there — we have a full team here.”

The goal, said Brown, is to improve KCI’s Multidisciplinary Breast Care Clinic and the statistics related to the treatment of breast cancer, right here in Lapeer. Nationally, the time from the first positive biopsy to the first course of treatment for breast cancer patients is six weeks. “Here in Lapeer, we’ve cut that time in half,” said Brown. “We’re streamlining the process. We looked into the national average, which is six weeks, and we’re seeing patients in under three weeks…these women are being treated in half the time.”

Living Cancer-Free

“Now I’m cancer-free just ten months after my diagnosis,” said Smith. A graduate of Lapeer East High School in 2004, Smith is now employed at KCI in Lapeer performing insurance verification and co-pay assistance. “During my first chemotherapy treatment is when I applied,” she said. “And I was hired during my third treatment.”

The Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Lapeer Region is one of only 41 designated National Cancer Institute facilities in the United States, meaning that the facility has passed rigorous standards for treatment and innovation in the realm of cancer treatment. It also means that doctors and patients in Lapeer have access to clinical trials for all types of cancers. “That’s a step further for our patients,” said Brown. “You don’t have to take that trek to the big city to get into a clinical trial.”

Clinical trials, to patients, represent options, said KCI Oncology Research Nurse Lynn Perkowski. According to Perkowski, in practice, the ability to enroll patients in clinical trials simply means the facility is able to provide patients with as many options as possible in their treatment. “A lot of patients are apprehensive to go through any treatment, but cancer treatment has come a long way in the past five years,” said Perkowski. “We have an opportunity right here that gives people options to see some sort of benefit from it, it’s nice.”

According to Gayar, the ability to provide patients with options equates to giving patients hope. “For a lot of patients, there are options out there,” he said.

Now employed at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Lapeer Region, Smith credits Bell and the rest of the KCI Multidisciplinary Breast Clinic staff with getting her through her grueling treatment regimen.

“Without the help of everyone here to guide me…there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather have been,” she said. And now as a member of that staff, Smith said the highlight of her work day is seeing patients walk in under that fog of fear and confusion, and walk out with hope. “To see their faces when they get here, and when they leave, it’s like night and day,” said Smith. “They’re not just patients, they’re part of the family. To know that I can make it a little easier on them makes the whole thing I went through worth it.”

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