”Depending on the diagnosis, my job is to find out which international treatment regimen would be the best for the patient. If his or her cancer requires a multiple specialty regimen, we hemato-oncologists plan the treatments together with these specialists. For example, leukemia is treated with cytostatic drugs only, so we can begin the treatments immediately after getting the diagnosis confirmed,” Päivi explains the process.
Päivi Lähteenmäki is the head of department of paediatric and adolescent haematology and oncology at Turku University Hospital (TYKS). She is rewarded as Oncologist of the year 2016 in Finland and she’s been in the business since early 1980s, at first as a medical student in research projects.
In the turn of 1970s leukemia was an incurable illness. Solid tumors were treatable by surgery and radiation therapy. ”By the invention of chemotherapy, prognosis had a tremendous rise. In early 2000s around 80% of all the cancers were curable.” Since that, there hasn’t been similar leaps anymore, because the last 20% of cases are poor prognosis cancers: either they are metastatic or very aggressive.
”We try to connect these patients into international collaborative studies by which we also could find new subtypes of these illnesses. Our goal is to find the subtypes that somehow could be treatable. New approaches in science help finding these. Even though this is a huge challenge, we make active research.”
Little patients at Päivi’s heart
Occasionally little babies get cancer, and the number of incurable cancers in their age group is higher.”It’s intense for the parents when they haven’t had time to get to know their awaited baby. These are heartbreaking events. But it’s wonderful if cancer can be cured,” Päivi says through tears.
”What comes to showing emotions around patients, of course I need to keep my professionalism. But when you become familiar with the patient, the grief is shared,” she explains. “I do sometimes have tears in my eyes on the ward rounds. In one room we might discuss about how unfair the world is. Then I take a deep breath and in the next room we talk about something else. To me it’s easier to tell about the bad news and support the family in the final stage, if I have a good, trusting relationship with them,” Päivi explains.
”Sometimes miracles do occur,” she says. ”I remember this little patient who was diagnosed with leukemia. After the treatments the illness came back and she received a stem cell transplant (SCT). Then the illness was in remission for about a year when it suddenly recurred. The international opinion has earlier been that if leukemia recurs after SCT, new SCT won’t be worth giving. A lot of risks are related to it and the prognosis is poor. However, this was tried in other countries, and we found a new donor, too. She received the treatments and after some infections and other problems our little patient started to recover. A month later we took control biopsy and were happy to notice that leukemia was gone and only donor cells were left.”
It’s been three years now and the little patient is going to school. ”This has been an example on my career that even in the desperate situations we can succeed, if the patient is physically fit.”
Kaiku Health helps finding the patients in need of support
Receiving cancer treatments at an early age often causes late-effects. ”Many of the patients would benefit from the late follow-ups,” Päivi says. According to her it’s not possible that a pediatric team would continue taking care of the adults, but knowing the patient history enables a better support. ”Digital solutions are a big deal at supporting the maturing patients, and Kaiku Health makes it easier to communicate with them. We learn how they are doing from the health surveys and if they have any questions, they ask it in Kaiku.
Kaiku Health helps both sides on recognizing the need for psychological support: “During their pediatric clinic follow-up, patients meet us once a year, so it’s pretty difficult for them to tell us if things aren’t going well with them. As the appointment time is short we have no chance to dig into puzzling questions. Kaiku helps us at getting objective information about patients’ condition and allows us to plan the follow-up better.”
Written by Matilda Mela, UX & Marketing Designer at NetmediTags: cancer care, patient support, Patient-Reported Outcomes