Battling cancer

MARQUETTE – There was a lot of ground to cover in Carolyn Bruzdzinski’s recent talk about the American Cancer Society’s fight against the disease, which includes early detection and funding research.

However, she managed to hit many highlights during her presentation, “Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, Where We Are Going,” which took place Wednesday at the Landmark Inn.

Bruzdzinski is health systems vice president of the Lakeshore Division of the ACS.

In 1996, the ACS’s national board of directors, all volunteers, decided to do “something a little bold,” she said, putting forth the challenge that if everybody – from governments to community-based organizations to schools – focused efforts on cancer, the mortality rate could be reduced by 50 percent by 2015.

Unfortunately, that challenge wasn’t met. However, improvements are being made, she said, citing an example that prostate cancer has been reduced by 50 percent, and, in fact, thousands of cancer deaths in general have been averted.

But it takes a group effort, she pointed out, to save lives.

“Everyone has a role to play to make this happen,” Bruzdzinski said.

One of the people making that happen is local volunteer Claire Young, who was recognized during Wednesday’s event.

“Claire is instrumental and really the core to our Cancer Resource Center here in town,” Bruzdzinski said.

The center is located in Suite 110 of the Peninsula Medical Center at 1414 W. Fair Ave.

She said Young has recruited other volunteers for the center.

“She helps manage it and makes sure that it runs, and that Cancer Resource Center is so important to the people in the area because it a place you can go and get all the information the American Cancer Society has available,” Bruzdzinski said.

Young should know. She lost both parents and three of her best friends to cancer.

“I just feel like this is how I can give back to ACS and other groups,” Young said.

Young also is the accountant for the local Relay for Life, an annual fundraiser for the ACS.

“I really couldn’t function without Claire,” said Carl Fulsher, Relay for Life specialist with the ACS’s Northeast Michigan and Upper Peninsula Office.

Bruzdzinski said the society has learned “a lot besides understanding that we’ve really saved a lot of lives,” but wants to set goals, moving from saving 400 deaths a day to 1,000 deaths a day and ending cancer before the end of the 21st century.

That means, Bruzdzinski said, never hearing the dreaded words “you have cancer.”

Strategies, she said, include:

  • prevention;
  • detecting more cancers early;
  • finding more treatments and cures; and
  • advocating for everyone to have an equal chance to benefit.

Finding cancers early is especially important, she said, because the survival rates are so much higher.

Consider the cancers that have early-detection technologies.

“If you detect breast cancer early, survival rates of breast cancer are 98 percent,” Bruzdzinski said. “If you detect cervical cancer early, survival rates are up there at 98-99 percent as well.”

With colorectal cancer, survival rates are going up because of the increase of screening; if this type of cancer is found in stage 1, rates are in the 90s as well, she said.

“The problem is we don’t have them for all cancers because some cancers remain very hidden,” Bruzdzinski said of those early-detection technologies.

Examples of those hard-to-detect-early cancers, she said, are ovarian and pancreatic cancers.

There is, however, some good news.

A screening technology, Bruzdzinski said, now exists for lung cancer, which has shown to be successful, particularly with heavy smokers.

However, none of these efforts work, she said, if some people don’t have access to them.

Access can involve many factors.

“It means just being able to get to the place of the treatment or the cure,” Bruzdzinski said. “It means having insurance that will cover it.”

The ACS, she said, focuses on populations with great challenges to access and care as well as financial issues.

Other patient concerns, she said, are transportation and lodging since since treatments can require daily trips to the doctor.

“If you’re in rural areas, then the issue is there are long distances to travel,” Bruzdzinski said. “If you are in urban areas, the issue has a lot of different combined issues. It’s neighborhood. It’s parking.”

The ACS, she said, has a volunteer program, Road to Recovery, that involves recruitment of drivers.

“It’s a program that is really well received by patients because the drivers care, and they take a lot of time with patients and they really care about getting them to their doctor, making sure they’re OK and getting home,” Bruzdzinski said.

However, she acknowledged finding drivers in rural regions is a challenge, so the ACS is looking at different kinds of transportation support, including partnering with hospitals.

With lodging being another issue, the ACS has “Hope Lodges” in some cities, including Grand Rapids; Marshfield, Wisconsin; and Rochester, Minnesota. These facilities, Bruzdzinski said, provide a welcoming place for patients and their caregivers.

The ACS, Bruzdzinski said, wants to have Hope Lodges in more areas. However, since they cost $15 million each to build and come with annual maintenance costs, they are located in regions with a high volume of patients.

The ACS also partners with motels across the United States that agree to provide complimentary rooms, she said.

With hair loss sometimes the inevitable result of cancer treatment, appearance is another source of worry for patients.

“We think of it as a wig and makeup, but it’s so much more than that, because cancer can really rob you of your energy,” Bruzdzinski said. “It can rob you of your appetite. It can rob you of your strength, but we don’t want it to rob individuals of their self-confidence.”

A “Look Good Feel Better” session, she said, involves not only teaching patients how to apply makeup but acts as a support group. Free wigs are provided, of course.

The ACS, she said, also funds the “best science,” which means taking risks on new research like creating drugs to stop blood flow to tumors and therefore keeping them from metastasizing.

A vast amount of information on the disease is found at the ACS website, cancer.org.

“There are a lot of websites, but none of them like ours,” Bruzdzinski said.

The reason it’s such an “incredible website,” she said, is because it’s been developed by ACS doctors and nurses. It’s also continually updated.

“There are doctors and nurses who have treated patients, who have held their hands, who know how to say something, what to say and when to say it,” Bruzdzinski said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.