Harboring Hope

The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation Auditorium is used for community outreach presentations on cancer prevention.

In naming the pandemic that has prevailed over our lives in the 2020s, the World Health Organization ensured that generations henceforth shall know the year of COVID-19’s genesis. AIDS emerged more slowly, but dates back a century. In contrast, a circa 3000 B.C. papyrus describes the first cancer tumor — removed by cauterization with a tool called “the fire drill,” but with the conclusion that “there is no treatment.”

Even 5,000-plus years since its first written mention, cancer globally accounts for 9.6 million deaths a year — one in six deaths — according to WHO statistics. Perhaps one reason the word “cancer” lingers in our midst is that it covers a deep ocean of meaning for a mere six letters.

“People tend to think of cancer as one disease, and in fact it encompasses hundreds of diseases. Breast cancer is nothing like lung cancer, for example,” says Eisenhower Health radiation oncologist Monica Khanna, M.D. “On top of that, today’s goal is to come up with personalized treatment plans. Surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists work together to determine the best therapies for individual patients. Some cases require radiation alone; some may only require surgery; and others surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.”

“We are not treating cancer with broad strokes, but in a precise way based on a patient’s unique molecular profile,” echoes Katie Schnaser, chief administrative officer at Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage where Khanna serves as senior radiation oncologist of the Eisenhower Bighorn Radiation Oncology Center. “We offer a wide variety of sophisticated cancer treatment and services for a large community hospital. We have hematology/oncology clinics, infusion centers, two breast centers, radiation oncology, and a number of specialty oncology clinics

“Historically, cancer care has focused on treatment and, more recently, on treatment and survival,” she continues. “There is so much information for physicians because of advanced imaging and genetic testing and counseling that we are able to focus more than ever on prevention and early detection, which increases chances of better outcomes.”

Monica Khanna, M.D., radiation oncologist.

Radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists eliminate tumors, respectively, by radiation and surgery. Medical oncologists use systemic treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and hormonal therapy.

WHO’s most recently released numbers (2019) show 2.1 million cancer cases reported in the United States and close to 617,000 cancer-attributed deaths. The U.S. National Cancer Institute’s latest report (September 2020) projected 1.8 million cases of cancer and more than 600,000 cancer-related deaths in 2020. Both sources find breast and lung cancers to be the most prevalent cases in the United States, followed by prostate and colorectal cancers. Notably, WHO statistics show a variance of incidence vis-à-vis death as 11 vs. 6.8 percent for breast cancer, 10.7 vs. 24.7 percent for lung cancer, and 10 percent vs. 4.7 percent for prostate cancer.

“Based on data I get for the Coachella Valley, we expect incidences of cancer to grow about 13 percent in the next five years and 25 percent in the next 10 years,” Schnaser says. “That’s why Eisenhower is so focused on programs and technologies to get people at high risk on track to be monitored more closely to prevent or detect cancer earlier.

“It is amazing how much the collective knowledge base about cancer is evolving, and we need to be part of that research,” she continues. “There are more than 700 cancer drugs in late-stage development. Forty percent of those are personalized drugs. That’s why it is important to have screening services and genetic counseling, so we can be precise about addressing cancer. When someone is identified as having a genetic mutation, that may impact how they get treated. It also may indicate family members could be at higher risk for cancer. They may want counseling to understand more about their likelihood of getting cancer, lifestyle changes they could make, or the need for increased screening.

“Quality is the most important element of cancer care,” Schnaser concludes. “We would not be where we are today without donors investing in programs, technology, education, research, and clinical-support services.”

Christopher McGuire, president and chairman of the Berger Foundation board.

The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Auditorium in the cancer center recognizes the financial support of Palm Desert-based H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, which totals more than $17 million to Eisenhower over the years. The auditorium is used for community outreach presentations on cancer prevention, detection, and cancer care treatment options, as well as for physician/staff education and seminars.

“When Mr. and Mrs. Berger were alive, they felt strongly about helping nonprofit hospitals,” says Christopher McGuire, president and chairman of the Berger Foundation board. “We have always felt that providing healthcare is a very important part of making a community successful.”

“Treatment is not only about medicine,” says Alison Mayer Sachs, MSW.

A Life Journey

Embarking on a new era of patient care, Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center opened 17 years ago with the mission “to create a place where patients and their families could come for support, education, and care,” says Alison Mayer Sachs, the center’s director of community outreach and cancer support services.

“Treatment is not only about the medicine. Throughout the country, there is recognition that a cancer diagnosis is a diagnosis of a family, not just a patient. There are emotional and spiritual components that have to be addressed — merging science with care and compassion.

“We offer nine support groups, stress/relaxation classes, nutritional counseling, a wig bank that includes hats and scarves, tai chi and yoga, genetic counseling, and art therapy,” she notes. “All our programs are run by people trained in working with cancer patients, and all are free of charge.” Anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 people a year now take advantage of the center’s support services.

“When we opened, we had 120 people in two support groups. We are always doing a needs assessment with our patients: ‘What aren’t you getting here that you need? How can we help you?’

“One focus in the last year was on nutrition,” Sachs continues. “We contracted with a registered dietician who has expertise in oncology. She gives monthly ‘Fight Cancer With a Fork’ lectures, and her salary is paid for by donations.

“For me, it is about giving cancer patients and their loved ones the information, support, and guidance they need so they can make informed decisions. Cancer today is so complicated. Our focus is to make sure our community members know they don’t walk through the journey alone,” Sachs says — and then divulges that she herself is a cancer survivor.

“I can’t tell you how important all that is until you are a cancer patient — and then you just get it.”

• READ NEXT: Annual-Giving Donors Meet the Greatest Needs for Eisenhower Health.

Harboring Hope at Palm Springs Life –

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