Cancer as a full contact sport


John worked as a handyman and lived on a small sailboat in a marina. When he was diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer at age 48, he quickly fell through the cracks. He failed to show to appointments and took oral anticancer treatments, but just sporadically. He had Medicaid, so insurance wasn’t the issue. It was everything else.

John was behind on his slip fees; he hadn’t been able to work for some time because of his progressive weakness and pain. He was chronically in danger of getting kicked out of his makeshift home aboard the boat. He had no reliable transportation to the clinic and so he didn’t come to appointments regularly. The specialty pharmacy refused to deliver his expensive oral chemotherapy to his address at the marina. He went days without eating full meals because he was too weak to cook for himself. Plus, he was estranged from his family who were unaware of his illness. His oncologist was overwhelmed trying to take care of him. He had a reasonable chance of achieving disease control on first-line oral therapy, but his problems seemed to hinder these chances at every turn. She was distraught – what could she do?

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso, a nurse practitioner at Santa Monica (Calif.) Cancer Care in the UCLA Health System

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso

Enter the team approach. John’s oncologist reached out to our palliative care program for help. We recognized that this was a job too big for us alone so we connected John with the Extensivist Medicine program at UCLA Health, a high-intensity primary care program led by a physician specializing in primary care for high-risk individuals. The program provides wraparound outpatient services for chronically and seriously ill patients, like John, who are at risk for falling through the cracks. John went from receiving very little support to now having an entire team of caring professionals focused on helping him achieve his best possible outcome despite the seriousness of his disease.

He now had the support of a high-functioning team with clearly defined roles. Social work connected him with housing, food, and transportation resources. A nurse called him every day to check in and make sure he was taking medications and reminded him about his upcoming appointments. Case management helped him get needed equipment, such as grab bars and a walker. As his palliative care nurse practitioner, I counseled him on understanding his prognosis and planning ahead for medical emergencies. Our psycho-oncology clinicians helped John reconcile with his family, who were more than willing to take him in once they realized how ill he was. Once these social factors were addressed, John could more easily stay current with his oral chemotherapy, giving him the best chance possible to achieve a robust treatment response that could buy him more time.

And, John did get that time – he got 6 months of improved quality of life, during which he reconnected with his family, including his children, and rebuilt these important relationships. Eventually treatment failed him. His disease, already widely metastatic, became more active and painful. He accepted hospice care at his sister’s house and we transitioned him from our team to the hospice team. He died peacefully surrounded by family.


Next Article: