Story updated on May 16, 2022 with updated accreditation status.
Processing a life-changing cancer diagnosis for yourself or a loved one can substantially impact physical and mental well-being and precipitate numerous lifestyle changes. But then, selecting a health institution to entrust that cancer care can present yet another stressor.
For this reason, possessing a clear sense of essential factors contributing to quality cancer care can ease the search and decision-making endeavors, says Mark Reeves, MD, PhD, director of Loma Linda University Cancer Center. He highlights some key qualities of top-notch cancer care that patients and loved ones should consider to help guide them toward a well-informed and confident choice.
Markers of experience
Reeves says that a health institution’s history and its physicians’ level of experiences with various aspects of cancer care are of first and foremost importance. He says experience encompasses both the amount of time and the number of patients an institution has treated for cancer.
Loma Linda University Health has cared for cancer patients since its origins as the Loma Linda Sanitarium, founded in 1905. Since then, care teams at the Cancer Center have treated hundreds of thousands of patients. The LLU Cancer Center has been a Quality Accredited Cancer Program by the American College of Surgeons (ACS) Commission on Cancer since 1959 and received its re-accreditation this year on May 16.
When you’re a patient with a specific type of cancer, you want a care team of professionals who deal with this type of cancer hundreds of times each year, not just seeing that cancer once or twice a year.Dr. Mark Reeves
Time, however, is not the only significant factor in considering an institution’s experience, Reeves says — the amount of patients seen within a time frame is also essential.
As the largest and most prominent academic health center in the Inland Empire region, LLU Cancer Center treats a high volume and broad range of patients from southern and eastern parts of California and southern Nevada. In addition, as a referral center, the Cancer Center welcomes a high number of individuals every day and continues to accumulate experience.
“When you’re a patient with a specific type of cancer, you want a care team of professionals who deal with this type of cancer hundreds of times each year, not just seeing that cancer once or twice a year."
Another way to gauge an institution’s experience is to inquire about the number and variety of tumor boards it has, Reeves says. A tumor board involves a group of physicians from various disciplines — surgical oncology, medical oncology, radiation oncology, pathology, and radiology — who meet regularly to discuss individual patients and their care plans. All cancer centers accredited by ACS Commission on Cancer must possess one or more active tumor boards, Reeves says, considered critical components of delivering specialty cancer care.
The degree of expertise in sub-specialization is evidenced by the number of tumor boards a health center has.Dr. Mark Reeves
LLU Cancer Center sustains 11 disease-specific tumor boards: head and neck, gynecological, genitourinary, pediatric, neuro-oncology, melanoma, gastrointestinal, thoracic, liver, hematological pathology, and breast cancer.
“The degree of expertise in sub-specialization is evidenced by the number of tumor boards a health center has,” Reeves says. “Our Cancer Center has expanded its sub-specialty tumor boards in the last few decades to meet the complexity of each of these fields with specific expertise.”
A twelfth tumor board at the Cancer Center, though not disease-specific, brings together experts in palliative medicine and symptom management dedicated to identifying and meeting individual patients’ needs for supportive care. In addition to the supportive care tumor board, the Cancer Center also offers programs and services to meet cancer patients’ psychological, spiritual, financial, and lifestyle needs, including: connection to social workers or psycho-oncology services, cancer support groups, nutrition workshops, consultations with cancer dieticians, and more via the cancer resource center.
To best support depth and breadth of expertise in caring for people with cancer, an institution should also utilize cutting-edge technology, Reeves says. He advises looking out for the level of technology used by physicians at a health institution that enables them to administer the latest and safest treatments.
Research shows an institution’s experience in surgical treatment of complex conditions such as pancreatic, lung, esophageal, bladder, and rectal cancers and achieving good outcomes is directly proportional to the number of cases that institution takes on, Reeves says.
Surgical technology includes surgeon experience, operating room capabilities, and tools managed by a multi-disciplinary care team and staff well-versed in taking care of patients — from anesthesia during major surgical resections to post-operative care in the ICU. Reeves says that hybrid operating rooms, robotic surgery for minimally invasive procedures, and techniques in interventional radiology fall into this category.
Beyond surgical technologies, an institution should be able to provide patients with advanced cancer therapies such as targeted therapy and immunotherapies and participate in burgeoning areas of research and treatments like molecular and cellular therapies. In addition, it is important to have cutting-edge radiation technologies, such as proton therapy that decreases radiation dosing to normal tissue — a practice the Cancer Center has over 30 years of experience in performing.
Availability of clinical trials
The number of cancer-related clinical trials an institution has open for patients to participate in can also be a strong indicator of that institution's care quality and priorities, Reeves says.
Studies have shown that patients who enroll in clinical trials generally have better outcomes than those who do not, regardless of which treatment they receive in the clinical trial, Reeves says.
“These trials are so well designed,” he says. "They are set up so that no matter which of the experimental treatments you receive, you are guaranteed to receive a great treatment, but we just don’t happen to know yet which one is the best.”
As a designated High Performing Site (HPS) by the National Cancer Institute, LLU Cancer Center typically features over 100 clinical trials open for accrual at any given time.