For most patients, a cancer diagnosis is a scary and life-altering moment. Having the right medical treatment, and support play a role in the outcome. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Perla Lara, editor of Impacto, Marla Vega of Moriviví Cancer Support Group and Dr. Ana Maria López from Jefferson to talk about caring for cancer patients.
Dr. . López was born in Bolivia and moved to the United States as a six-year-old. She lived in Chicago and Arizona before moving to the Philadelphia area where she attended Bryn Mawr College and then continued her education at Thomas Jefferson Medical School. She moved back to Arizona to be near her parents for her residency and fellowship programs. After developing her career in Arizona and spending a few years in Utah as the Associate Vice President for Health Equity at the University of Utah, she returned to Philly and Jefferson where she serves as Professor and Vicechair Medical Oncology at the medical school and Chief of Cancer Services as well as the Director of Integrated Oncology.
The Latino culture has been a source of strength for her. As a new doctor she was treating a Spanish-speaking patient and realized the importance of speaking two languages. She was able to help the patient in part because she was able to fully communicate with her. Being a woman and a Latina is an honor for her.
She might have been destined to become a doctor. Both of her parents were physicians, and her mother received her medical diploma just hours after Ana María was born. Her driving force is to help others. As a child, she would tend to her classmates that had fallen in the playground. That caring spirit grew into a passion to help others acquire or maintain good health. She explains that “good health decreases your chances of developing cancer. Good nutrition, exercise and not smoking all decrease your risk of developing cancer”. She became an oncologist to help those whose lives have been affected by cancer: the patients, family members and the community.
Ana María has been a doctor since 1988 and she states that she is still in awe of the miracle of how the body functions. There is a cycle to most things; cancer is different. She explains that “cancer cells forget how to die and don’t follow the pattern or cycle that normal cells have where they are formed, grow and die.” They continue to multiply without control and eventually start invading other tissues. Under the microscope, she observes, “normal cells look beautiful, but cancer cells look abnormal, and they cluster”.
When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, she tries to reassure them and remind them that the only difference between now and before diagnoses is that now they know and can do something about it. She emphasizes the importance of early diagnosis, which makes treatment easier. It is therefore important for individuals to get screened following the recommendations. Screening tests such as mammography, colonoscopy, Papanicolaou and HPV testing should be done as recommended as they are able to save lives.
For smokers, obtaining a lung CT scan is an important screen as well. Dr. Lopez indicates that “it is better to never smoke”. Quitting is difficult and she celebrates every time someone stops smoking.
Ana Maria also advises reducing inflammation as a way to improve the prognosis and decrease the risk of recurrences. Factors such as lack of sleep, stress, and eating a diet high in unhealthy fats usually increase inflammation levels in the body. In order to decrease inflammation, she “prescribes” her patients to enjoy their lives and laugh. A deep laugh, one that comes from the belly has been shown to help. Our Latino community is a happy community and that is a contributing factor. Hugging and feeling loved also helps.
Cancer is a disease that attacks not only the body but also the soul. Ana María supports the patients so that they can live their life to the fullest. Faith and prayer are helpful in the healing process. Prayer allows the body to calm down and heals the soul. She says that “you can’t always cure, but you can always heal”.
Since the beginning of this century, the understanding of cancer at the molecular level has grown. Scientists and doctors can now observe changes in the DNA of normal cells that can lead to cancer cells. This provides the opportunity of developing therapeutic agents to treat these changes and prevent the cells from becoming cancer. A variety of culprits can cause changes in the cell’s DNA including environmental (such as pollution in the air, water, and soil). For example, we now know that charred meat is toxic to the body. Usually, these insults come to our bodies and our bodies deal with them and heal. However, on some occasions, the insults are too much, and the body loses its ability to heal itself causing cancer.
Dr. Lopez feels that the most difficult part of her job is not having enough time. “Life is short, and work is long,” she says. “Today I can help my current patients, but just as important is helping others so that they can become doctors in the future”. Her message for the youth is that “yes, you can”. Medicine is a long career but thinking about it in stages and taking it one step at a time helps. With each step, you learn.
A cancer diagnosis is difficult and life changing. Patients with a good support system usually can deal with the disease and all the changes it brings, better. Having good medical care and being able to diagnose early is essential but Dr. Lopez reminds us that preventing is even better. A clean environment, reducing stress, and being in community to promote health are all important ways to prevent cancer.