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Fighting Cancer with Hearts and Minds

Category: Patient Stories
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St. Luke's Regional Cancer Center's team: Dr. Basem Goueli, oncologist and medical director; Dr. Homam Alkaied, oncologist; Dr. Anne Silva-Benedict, oncologist; Dr. Steven Bonin, radiation oncologist; Dr. Mikhail Perlov, oncologist; Dr. Nils Arvold, radiation oncologistPublished in The Woman Today magazine, December 2015

Fighting cancer with hearts and minds: A unique approach at St. Luke's Regional Cancer Center

1 in 3 women. 1 in 2 men. According to data from the National Cancer Institute, those are the odds for someone to develop cancer in her or his lifetime.

Dr. Nils Arvold, a radiation oncologist at St. Luke’s Regional Cancer Center, says that in addition to cancer’s pervasiveness in our society, the disease holds a certain level of fascination for people. “With cancer, your own body is generating rogue cells that don’t stop growing and can cause your body to stop working altogether,” said Dr. Arvold, a former Harvard Medical School/Dana-Farber Cancer Institute faculty member and Duluth native. “Your body loses the ability to stop the growth and spread of cancer cells. That makes cancer a really personal—and oftentimes frightening—disease.”

Like many oncologists, Dr. Arvold was drawn initially to the science of treating cancer. But for him, the personal bond with patients added a human dimension to the disease. “During my medical training, I was struck by the level of connection that oncologists had with their patients. The people I saw with cancer diagnoses often went through intense physical and emotional experiences, and both the patients and their physicians seemed incredibly invested in the outcome. I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of those conversations.”

Compassion + Intellect = An optimal approach to cancer care.

The best cancer doctors are the ones with the best minds and the best hearts, says Dr. Basem Goueli, medical director of St. Luke’s Regional Cancer Center. “When you’ve worked your fourth 20-hour day in a row, and your mind doesn’t know the answer, it’s the heart that compels your mind to go find it no matter how exhausted you are.”

That unique melding of hearts and minds is the standard that Dr. Goueli, a Stanford-trained oncologist, says will define the future of cancer care. “Cancer therapy is no longer a one size fits all entity, as it is becoming increasingly individualized, and predicated on understanding the patient and the specific nuances of their cancer. At St. Luke’s, we are working with leading pharmaceutical companies and our own Whiteside Institute for Clinical Research to implement treatments that are based on identifying individual gene mutations and proteins in a patient’s specific cancer. We are rapidly improving our ability to understand and attack cancer at a molecular level with directed therapies that more specifically target cancer cells, and spare normal ones”.

It takes a team

Since his arrival at St. Luke’s in 2012, Dr. Goueli has been recruiting top physicians from leading programs around the country to St. Luke’s Regional Cancer Center. “We have assembled a diverse team of radiation and medical oncologists that have brought different cancer treatment approaches from world renowned cancer centers to northern Minnesota”.

Dr. Anne Silva-Benedict is one of those physicians. Dr. Silva-Benedict’s training began on the East Coast and culminated with a fellowship at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington, before she arrived in Duluth in 2013. For her, the connection to cancer was personal. “My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 17, and that experience really shaped my interest in oncology,” she said. “Cancer is always changing, so for me, the question is, ‘How do we outsmart cancer?’ I spent the first part of my career in research, but over time, as I spent more time with patients, I knew I didn’t want to just be in a lab all the time.”

The first step in effective treatment, says Dr. Silva-Benedict, is to be a good listener. “Every patient is different, so it’s important to be empathetic and help them understand their diagnosis. At St. Luke’s, we also have a clinical psychologist on staff to help patients and their families process and prepare for the road ahead.” Other physicians on the St. Luke’s Regional Cancer Center team includes: Homam Alkaied, MD, oncologist; Steven Bonin, MD, radiation oncologist; and Mikhail Perlov, MD, oncologist.

Clinical trials and the role of research

For many cancers, new pharmaceutical treatments hold the most promise. “Clinical trials are the key,” says Dr. Silva-Benedict, “and we have built a program that attracts some of the best and most promising clinical trials.”

Dr. Goueli concurs. “The future of cancer care will be shaped by clinical trials,” he says. “With the Whiteside Institute for Clinical Research, we are fortunate to have a dedicated research program that allows us to run clinical trials that would normally only be available at much larger institutions in more urban areas. You cannot give optimal care or therapy without these clinical trials, and St. Luke’s has a phenomenal clinical research program that is unprecedented for a hospital its size, and is arguably the best in northern Minnesota.”

A culture of caring

In the ongoing fight against cancer, it takes everything—the best of the heart and the best of the mind—to prevail, says Dr. Goueli. “At St. Luke’s Regional Cancer Center, we have intentionally built a culture where care providers and patients alike feel beloved. We are adamant that our patients receive the same level of care at St. Luke’s that they would at Stanford, Mayo, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, etc. We treat patients like we would our family members, and that’s not rhetoric. If it’s not good enough for our family members, it’s not good enough for our patients”.

Three ways to minimize your cancer risk

Some cancers are preventable and others may be caught at an earlier and more curable stage through screening studies, says Dr. Nils Arvold, radiation oncologist at St. Luke’s. To that end, here are three things he recommends to minimize your cancer risks.

1. Stop smoking

“The biggest personal lifestyle change someone can make to reduce their risk of several cancers is to stop smoking. Completely stopping is best, but even cutting back is better than no change at all.”

2. Discuss screening studies with your primary care doctor

“Breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancers are among the most common cancers, and sometimes can be caught in early stages through screening tests. There are a number of ongoing controversies regarding who should undergo screening and at what age to derive the most benefit, so it is vital to see your primary care doctor to discuss which screening studies are most appropriate for you.”

3. Know your family history

“Several cancers, including breast, prostate, colon, and ovarian cancers, can be familial. Make sure you and your physician are aware of your family’s history with cancer, as it can affect your own cancer risk and change recommendations for you, including what age to start undergoing screening evaluations.”