Three-year cancer survivor Ellen Brotzman-Desart is an expert in recognizing and filling voids for people whose lives have been touched by cancer.
She helps coordinate educational programming for cancer patients, caregivers, family members and cancer survivors through the Simmons Cancer Institute's new initiative: Side by Side, Place of Wellness.
"Having cancer made me a much more compassionate person and helped me realize the gaps that exist," Brotzman-Desart says. "When you walk away from chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, all of a sudden there's this void. I understand the void and how to fill that void."
For many years, the emphasis in cancer treatment has dealt primarily with the physical aspects of the disease - treatment that might include chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.
But research published in the past five or six years has shown a surprising result from that single-minded approach, according to Dr. Chad Noggle, chief of the psychiatry department's psycho-oncology division and also the director of Side by Side, Place of Wellness.
"If we simply focus on treatment, we miss the mark," Noggle says. "The disease is just one aspect. Our approach here has been born out of the literature of what people need to ensure a quality of life, not just quantity of life."
Noggle says that creating services designed to improve quality of life for people dealing with cancer requires a different mindset - both from the patient and the health-care network. Side by Side, Place of Wellness is available to the public free of charge and works to address the emotional, social and physical needs of people living with cancer as well as their caregivers and family members.
Side by Side teams utilize the expertise of a nutritionist, counselor, pastoral care (if requested) and patient navigator to help the patient utilize available health-care resources.
Weekly classes use art, music and journaling to enable participants to express their emotions in a safe environment. Yoga and exercise classes address physical wellness.
Personalized instruction using guided imagery helps patients visualize positive outcomes ahead of their chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Support groups for caregivers and cancer patients and more specialized groups - including a lung support group, parents of children with cancer and a woman's support group - also meet regularly to share personal experiences.
The program also seeks to support and encourage caregivers and family members, since they play a key role in the quality of life of patients with cancer. Persuading these people to take care of themselves in the midst of caring for their loved one can be a tough sell sometimes.
"The cancer experience on a physical level deals with one person," Noggle says. "However, the cancer toll is experienced by everyone in the home and friends and family outside the home. As a loved one, the tendency is to feel completely helpless. These people can be prone to not taking care of themselves on a physical level."
Noggle adds that for those who are biologically related to the cancer patient, there also may be concerns about genetic similarities. This is where nutritional expertise can help.
"It really becomes an issue of intervention and prevention for them," Noggle says. "We can help them from a nutritional standpoint to reduce their risk."
Side by Side, Place of Wellness began operating Sept. 1 and accepts area patients from all hospitals or health-care organizations.
Teams meet in the institute's teleconference room to discuss overall treatment options that encompass all aspects of a patient's quality of life.
The goal is simple: to treat the cancer while recognizing that people experience illness through their physical, emotional and spiritual reactions.
"We're just now getting people to understand how this is just as important, if not more important, than the chemotherapy regimen, the scans, the biopsies," Noggle adds.
"Quality of life is more likely to beget quantity of life."
Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )