YORK — The spot on his shoulder hurt so badly, York resident Ken Alley started putting his seatbelt on under his arm.
He soon discovered the spot was nodular melanoma.
That was July 15, 2019; now, almost a year later and well into the coronavirus pandemic, Alley is anticipating his next – and last -- immunotherapy treatment. Even as the pandemic rages on, Alley remains determined to stick to his treatment plan. “I didn’t want to skip one treatment,” he said.
There have been concerns in some areas about treatment services because of the pandemic, but Karrie Otoupal, York General Hospital Director of Oncology & Infusion Services, said things have been business as usual at the hospital. “All of the patients we are currently treating at York General have been getting their treatment on time. If they have restaging studies that include lab and radiology, those have been on time also.”
Things look a little different for cancer patients like Alley in the midst of COVID-19. The biggest change has been staff and patients sporting masks. Alley said he keeps spare masks in his car, and only goes places he feels are necessary. “I don’t have many places I go.”
Cancer patients – particularly those receiving chemotherapy or bone marrow transplant – are more susceptible to COVID-19 infection because of compromised immune systems, according to the American Cancer Society. In keeping with social distancing, ACS has modified their services to better serve the needs of cancer patients. “It has really impacted everything we’re doing,” said Christine Bleich, Community Development Manager for ACS’s North Region. According to ACS, in March 2020 80% of calls to its helpline were coronavirus-related.
“In the one hundred-plus years we’ve been an organization, we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Brian Ortner, Director of Communications for ACS’s North Region. Among those adjustments are offering funding to support hospital capacity and health care provider’s coronavirus-related expenses. American Cancer Society has also ramped up its telehealth offerings.
York General Hospital has turned to more telehealth services as well, Otoupal said. “Our visiting Oncologists have not come out during the pandemic, but have been great to work with as far as telehealth visits and phone calls.”
“I haven’t had any concerns from our patients,” she added. “They have been very understanding with the provider not seeing them face to face.”
Being there for those fighting cancer is essential – whether in-person or not. Some of ACS’s telehealth work involves helping quarantined patients stay cared-for supported. The nonprofit has expanded access to telehealth and in-home care for Medicare beneficiaries and veterans, and around-the-clock ACS Helpline video conferencing.
Alley said he has heard – anecdotally -- of some cancer patients who are skipping treatment for fear of getting COVID-19. He said that just wasn’t an option for him. “Don’t put it off just because of COVID,” Alley said. “You’ve got to take risks – that’s just the way it is.”
“Regardless of their status of their cancer journey, there are still things they need to do,” Ortner said. Making that safer, York General has implemented further social distancing by giving social distancing reminders, and removing a number of chairs from waiting rooms. Basic prevention measures like wearing a mask and not accompanying a patient to treatment are also pieces of the cancer-coronavirus puzzle. American Cancer Society recommends only one caregiver – if any – accompany the cancer patient to treatment to lower the risk of exposure.
With all of the recommendations, Otoupal said, York General Hospital oncology staff have been going the extra mile for their patients. “The staff in the Oncology department have all done a fantastic job helping patients navigate through this and coordinating their care to meet their needs.”
Ortner said the teamwork between caregivers, healthcare providers, patients and volunteers is more important than ever, and that ACS will keep pitching in as the fight goes on. “It’s not a time to stop; it’s a time to keep going. Cancer patients still need us.”
Alley said he will keep going, too, as the days until his final immunotherapy treatment tick by. “You just do what you can.”