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Palliative care works in partnership with cancer treatment

From left, Angela Como and Sara Watterson talk about the oncology and palliative care departments at Butler Health System Medical Oncology in Partnership with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center on Thursday afternoon. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

When discussing the treatment for a person who has cancer, Sara Watterson tries to view the diagnosis as a full-person and family diagnosis, because of how significantly treatment can change a person’s life.

Since 2015, the medical oncology department has been right across the hall from the palliative care department at BHS’s Crossroads Campus, which Watterson said provides a great boost to patients’ treatment results.

“I think palliative care has really been a huge change for our patient population,” said Watterson, a physician assistant in the medical oncology department at Butler Health System. “If we didn't have this group here, I do not think our patients would have the quality of life they have while undergoing treatment.”

Palliative care is specialized medical care for people living with a serious illness. At the Crossroads Campus, the oncology and the palliative care departments work in tandem to help a patient have a better experience while undergoing chemotherapy.

Angela Como, physician assistant for BHS palliative care, said the staff of her office work with patients to find treatment options that work best for them.

“We try to get to know patients and get to know family, to make sure the care we give them lines up with what their goals are,” Como said. “The other thing is we help to manage symptoms for them to help improve symptoms and quality of life while undergoing treatment.”

Como said the departments have had success with improving outcomes for patients who received early palliative care referrals. She said anyone going through chemotherapy at the campus can opt to get support from the palliative care department, but just like with treatment, support differs for every individual.

“Patients, as long as they are continuing to receive cancer treatment, they are probably continually following along with us however long that is,” Como said. “We have patients we have been seeing for years, they become like family. You've got to look at each patient individually as a person.”

Como also said the type of care provided by the palliative department depends on a patient’s diagnosis as well.

“The goal of treatment is to slow the progression — if you slow the progression or decrease the tumor, it improves their symptoms,” Como said. “The other goal is to give them more time.”

Even after completing treatment, a patient may still be in contact with palliative care staff members, who can help them transition back into more typical life.

“The emotional support is much-needed toward the end of their journey,” Watterson said. “There are still symptoms palliative care can help with, even when chemotherapy was completed.”

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Watterson also urged people to get tested, because early detection leads to better treatment outcomes when it comes to cancer.

“If we find your cancer, your lump early, you have a much better chance of us curing you,” Watterson said. “Mammograms save lives. You don't have to have a family history of breast cancer to get breast cancer. They are uncomfortable, it's not something you do for fun, but it saves lives.”

Como also said early detection is key, and it had a big impact on her own cancer treatment after she was diagnosed in 2010. She said she got herself checked after finding a lump on her chest that was “harder than bone,” and got into treatment in January.

Treatment was difficult — she was raising two young children and didn’t think she would have any more after going through chemotherapy — but she again said early detection made a big difference.

“I always wanted four kids, but cancer got in the way of that,” Como said. “I did have fertility testing and my doctor said it was highly unlikely. A little later I got pregnant with my third child. My oncologist said I had one last egg there that was waiting to be born.”

One of a number of palliative care exam rooms at Butler Health System Medical Oncology in Partnership with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Thursday afternoon. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle
Just some of the art made by children of patients in one of the palliative care exam rooms at Butler Health System Medical Oncology in Partnership with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center on Thursday afternoon. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle
One of 17 chemotherapy chairs for patients to use at Butler Health System Medical Oncology in Partnership with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. This one has a great view so that patients can have a great view while getting treatment. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

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