This story originally appeared in Scope magazine.
A unique resource center housed within Loma Linda University Health offers a single location for patients to access services and information designed to treat more than the clinical and medical aspects of a cancer diagnosis.
The Cancer Resource Center advances Loma Linda University Health’s mission to provide whole person care, not just treat disease. Patients battling cancer are often overwhelmed with anxiety as they go through testing and diagnosis. They’re also flooded with information about their medical condition and potential treatment paths.
“Our services provide focused support to the psychological, social and spiritual aspects of our patients’ lives,” says Tamie Vasquez, CLM, CLMC, coordinator for the Cancer Resource Center. “All of those pieces must come together for a patient to return to total health. Our patients are not just here for a diagnosis and treatment. We make sure that the right services are made available at the right time. That’s our passion.”
Each patient visiting the Loma Linda University Cancer Center completes a distress screening form. A nurse navigator reviews the answers, and can immediately refer that patient to a wide range of support services that will enhance the clinical side of their care.
“We automatically reach out to someone who has a high distress score,” says Gabriela Gutierrez, MS, MFTI, an associate marriage and family therapist at the Cancer Resource Center. “Often our initial contact leads to therapy or ongoing support.”
Women’s cancer support groups serve most of the Cancer Resource Center’s patients. Groups are tailored to specific needs, and are open to patients and caregivers.
One important avenue of therapy available at the CRC is in onco-sex therapy.
“Cancer is increasingly becoming a chronic illness, not an acute one,” Gutierrez says. “While the immediate medical issues may be over, it changes a person, and it changes their relationships. It’s important to explore what it looks like to be in a relationship with cancer.” Virtually every patient has one conversation about this issue, with roughly 60 percent receiving multiple sessions to address the issue.
Gutierrez points out there are societal stigmas about illnesses, and it’s up to each patient to decide if they wish to accept or reject the stigma. Women are conditioned to identify parts of their body as equating with femininity and desirability.
“The number one question most women ask is ‘who would want me now?’ ” Gutierrez says. “ ‘Who wants someone with cancer?’ I’ve had women call themselves Frankenstein, feeling their bodies are completely unrecognizable.”
Gutierrez helps couples explore how cancer has affected their intimate relationships and addresses body image issues. Couples explore how they connected with each other before cancer, and ways that they can maintain their intimate connection despite cancer. And the results can be rewarding.
“Women will say to me, ‘I feel lighter. I feel a weight has been lifted. I feel there’s hope,’ ” Gutierrez says. “It’s a privilege to help people move forward.”
Loma Linda University Health’s faith-based approach to health and healing adds an important component to the Cancer Resource Center’s work. Being able to incorporate a spiritual approach is an intricate part of care — one that is taboo in many secular institutions.
“In many places, therapists are afraid to initiate conversations about God,” Gutierrez says. “They’ll wait until a patient brings religion up. God’s voice is a powerful voice for a person on this journey. I appreciate that this institution allows us to explore the spiritual dimensions of care.”
Cancer Resource Center services
Individual, couple, group and family counseling can help assist in the adjustment to a life lived with cancer. All counselors have training specific to oncology needs. “Our support groups provide a safe place where patients can get help, even if they can’t get it at home,” says Tamie Vasquez.
Monthly nutrition talks help cancer patients, family members, and the general public learn about how healthy nutrition relates to cancer. “These are popular because the talks focus on eating, and less on cancer itself,” Vasquez says. Call 909-558-2262 for schedule and upcoming topics.
Bimonthly 90-minute cooking classes, designed to be interactive experiences. Knowledgeable chefs and dietitians show hope to prepare foods that reduce cancer risk, heart disease, and more. These are held in the Nichol Hall kitchen at the School of Allied Health Professions. Schedule and topics available at 1-877-LLUMC-4U.
An ongoing Women’s Cancer Support Group provides opportunities to learn about topics such as stress reduction, symptom management, relaxation, and lifestyle changes. Caregivers are welcome to attend. Held biweekly at the Behavioral Health Institute in Redlands. Call 909-558-2262 for dates and times.
Exercises that help open a patient’s lymphatic system, reducing the swelling caused by lymphedema. Patients and family members enjoy the supportive environments. Open to all fitness levels, the classes are held every Thursday at the Loma Linda Senior Center. Call 909-558-2262 for more information.
A free community wig bank, available to women whose chemotherapy or radiation treatments cause hair loss. “This can be a very emotional issue for women,” Vasquez says. “Hair loss is such a visible sign of their cancer. We provide significant support to them at these moments.”
Look Good, Feel Better program
Patients can receive personal consultations with a skin care professional. Free make-overs and cosmetics are available. Participants also learn how to keep contamination from their makeup. A partnership with the American Cancer Society.