Although Dr. Ana Maria Lopez has been a medical oncologist for more than 20 years, she observes that the challenges of caring for patients during this pandemic are unique.
By the time that Alan Phillips met Dr. Ana Maria Lopez, a medical oncologist and chief of cancer services at Jefferson Health New Jersey, he had already battled colon cancer once. The cancer came back, years later, rather unexpectedly when in getting a CT scan before a planned surgery, his medical team spotted a dark mass in his chest and lungs. The cancer had spread. This time, Alan would need chemotherapy.
“Colorectal cancer is a challenging cancer,” begins Dr. Lopez. “Not to say that any cancer is easy. But Mr. Phillips was really in a situation where he had a chance of cure. I didn’t want him to lose that window.”
When Alan was first diagnosed with colon cancer, he opted out of chemotherapy, feeling reservations about the chemicals involved. However, because the disease had recurred outside the colon, aggressive treatment would offer the possibility of long-term control. Now, he was at a crossroads again, needing to make a decision to receive therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think people are rightfully concerned about what is entering their body and [it is] really important for us to be able to explain how chemo works, weighing the pluses and minuses, so that people can really understand and weigh for themselves those risks and benefits,” explains Dr. Lopez. “Mr. Phillips ultimately did that and decided the benefits were going to outweigh the risks in this situation.”
Dr. Lopez understands why people have concerns, need information and reassurance about coming into clinical settings for care right now. “None of us have faced a full-on pandemic like this,” she says. “And though I’ve had experiences with AIDS in the ’80s, this seems of a much larger scale and vulnerability.”
These concerns and reservations have contributed to some cancer patients delaying care and treatment, which of course can cause concern from their physicians about how this delay could affect their long-term health. An NCI model is predicting over 10,000 extra breast and colorectal cancer deaths over the next 10 years, according to a recent article by STAT.
“I think in all those situations, it’s important to sit down, to talk, and to outline what does this mean for you as best as we can from the evidence of what we have,” says Dr. Lopez. “It’s important just to have the opportunity to talk it through. I think that’s what people need. They need to express their concerns and have them heard. It’s a great process that the patient is at the center.”
Dr. Lopez describes Jefferson as a leader in being on top of the latest knowledge and research on the best practices to keep both patients and staff safe and sharing that information so the healthcare teams are equipped to make the best recommendations with patients.
Dr. Lopez begins many of her appointments with patients by breathing with them. She says that three deep, cleansing breaths are incredibly soothing. “It’s a very small intervention but it can make a big difference,” she says. This small intervention is one she also brings to her team. “As health professionals, we need to have staying power,” she says. “To really be there for our patients and be there for each other and our families. That’s why it’s so important that we nurture ourselves because we’re in this for the long haul.”
To take care of herself, Dr. Lopez says she follows the advice her mother always told her: eat well, sleep well and find joy, in addition to meditation and staying physically active. This helps her arrive ready for her team and her patients.
“I don’t think as a child I would have known the word for it, but I always wanted to be a healer,” Dr. Lopez says. “I wanted to take care of the patient and their family, where there would be an opportunity to take care of body, mind and spirit. To be there when people are facing what I think really is the most difficult thing we face as humans—facing our mortality—is an incredible privilege to care for patients when this is what they’re going through.”
Wondering how her patient Alan is faring with chemotherapy? He offers an update on the latest episode of The Health Nexus podcast: