Jan Kroetz, chief nursing officer at Loma Linda University Medical Center, introduces the 2018 Courage to Care Leadership Award winners Amy Paluzzi and Denise Otair.

Preventing cancer from occurring and screening to detect cancers while in early stages have become two of the primary strategies in medicine’s ongoing fight against the disease.

Mark Reeves, MD, PhD, director of the Loma Linda University Cancer Center, reported that the death rate for cancers in the United States dropped 25 percent from 1990 to 2015. He also reported that there were 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States during 2015. 

Reeves’ remarks took place at the 27th annual Celebration of Life event held June 3 at Centennial Complex on the Loma Linda University Health campus.

“The 25 percent death rate drop in 25 years is an amazing statistic,” Reeves said. “I’m old enough to remember that for so many years there was an inexorable rise in both the rate of cancer cases and the number of deaths.”

Progress in treatments

While progress in medicine’s battle against cancer is real and substantial, Reeves reported that cancer is still the second largest killer of people in the U.S. A large percentage of the population is reaching their 60s and 70s, when most cancers occur. Reeves also pointed to obesity as a major risk factor for many types of cancers. 

Despite the challenges, Reeves said there has been enormous progress in cancer treatment techniques. Immunotherapy drugs and other targeted therapies have been used effectively in cancers such as melanomas, colon cancer and lung cancer. 

“The smoking rate in the U.S. has dropped in the last 30 to 40 years, down to a current rate of about 13 to 15 percent,” Reeves said. “That has contributed to the successes we see, and smoking has an enormous impact on many types of cancers.”

Reeves emphasized the importance of regular cancer screenings, particularly for those who have already had cancer or who have high risk.

“For those still in the fight, know that we are with you,” Reeves added.

Following his overview of the state of cancer treatment, Reeves introduced a video that told the story of Merlin Decoud. Decoud told how while out on a walk he suddenly had a severe pain in his back. Though he had never required a hospital stay in his life, Decoud was brought to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where doctors discovered he had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. He needed a bone marrow transplant.

Loma Linda University Health began offering adult bone marrow transplants in November 2017. Decoud was the first patient to undergo the procedure. Three months later doctors determined he was cancer-free. To watch the video please scroll to the bottom of this story.

Honored nurses

Amy Paluzzi and Denise Otair were honored with the Don Kroetz Courage to Care Leadership Award, given annually to recognize the compassionate and knowledgeable care Loma Linda University Health nurses provide to oncology patients. The winners are nominated and selected by their peers.

Jan Kroetz, MN, RN, NE-BC, chief nursing officer at Loma Linda University Medical Center, established the award 21 years ago to honor exceptional oncology nurses after her son Don's death following a 14-month struggle with leukemia. 

Amy Paluzzi has worked on the oncology unit since 2012. She is currently a unit team leader, a member of the professional governance council, and coauthor of an article published in Oncology Nursing Journal. Her coworkers call Paluzzi an exceptional team leader, and one who always has her patients’ best interests at heart.

Denise Otair joined the Loma Linda University Cancer Center as a patient navigator in the gynecological oncology clinic. Her peers recognize Otair as an amazing, compassionate nurse, whose kind and calm approach makes patients comfortable. 

“The Celebration of Life is an annual event that allows us to mark milestones and celebrate our successes,” said Judy Chatigny, MSN, executive director of Loma Linda University Cancer Center. “It’s also a time to think about the future and the work that needs to be done to help our patients.”