Advocates for Cancer Care
Whether he is standing in front of a classroom of students or greeting a friend in a hospital corridor, Jim Smorada approaches his cancer with an attitude of humor and candor.
As he waits in a quiet hospital lobby for the start of his chemotherapy treatment, the Killian Community College instructor talks about the routine colonoscopy in November that led to a diagnosis of colorectal cancer and the surgery to remove a portion of his colon.
“I’ve become a semi-colon, which is quite poignant, yet appropriate for a teacher of English,” he says, with a perfectly straight face. “I choose to handle this by mocking the heck out of the disease.”
The 66-year-old Sioux Falls man is the newest member of Sanford’s Cancer Action Partners, a group of people whose lives have been touched by cancer. They meet every other month to advise the health system on matters of treatment and policy. He says he’s glad to be able to use his voice to educate and help others with cancer.
Smorada’s approach to the disease has been to see it as the experience he is living, not an enemy that he fights. He talks honestly with students who ask questions about his treatment and has made it a point to be upfront with everyone he encounters about how he is feeling.
“I’m not one of those folks who talks about being a survivor or a fighter,” said Smorada... “I embrace the cancer, not because I like it, but because it is part of me.”
Advocates for care
The Cancer Action Partners were formed as part a partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to select Sanford as one of 30 Community Cancer Centers nationwide to help lead the rapid delivery of the latest evidence-based care and research to the region and nation. Patrick McGowan, Communication Manager for Sanford’s NCI Community Cancer Centers Program (NCCCP), says that the perspective of people like Smorada helps guide the health system in improving the experience of patients.
“Not only are they leaders in our community, but they also have had cancer or have had a loved one treated at Sanford,” McGowan said. “They’re really advising us on our services as well and as how we can improve, because they have that direct experience.”
In their collaborative meetings, the group has identified two goals.
One is to figure out how to create and develop survivorship services for patients and caregivers, McGowan said. With more than 12 million cancer survivors in the United States today, health systems need to learn how to help people after their treatment is done, he said.
“How do you help somebody who has had cancer and treatment for cancer, and is now living with that history,” McGowan said. “How do we help them reintegrate and reengage and transition back into life?”
Research and treatment
The group’s other goal is to increase enrollments in clinical trials for cancer. Today, just under eight percent of new Sanford patients sign on for research studies of new treatments or medications. Sanford and the Cancer Action Partners would like to see 10 percent of new patients volunteer for clinical trials in the next year, McGowan said.
“It’s not just for our sake, it’s fundamentally important for the patients,” McGowan said. “Today’s gold standard of treatment is yesterday’s clinical research study.”
Cancer Action Partners talked to Sanford officials about the terminology surrounding clinical trials and how that can be daunting, even though clinical trials are carefully monitored safe opportunities to receive the most cutting edge treatment. McGowan said that they learned that even just the term “clinical trial” is not as appealing to patients as “research study.”
Promoting research is important to Smorada, who decided when planning his treatment that he’d like to participate in a clinical trial, since it would give him a chance to help others with cancer. He spent time thinking about the issue, coming to the conclusion that it would be a way to make something positive out of his experience. However, he quickly discovered that his health insurance plan simply would not allow for treatment through any clinical trial or research study.
“I found the situation to be deeply offensive,” Smorada said. “This is clearly not something that is in the best interest of patients. Without data, we’re not going to be able to try new treatments.”
Sharing his story
At a time when some people are hesitant to even say the word “cancer,” it is more important than ever to have people like Smorada who are willing to talk about their experiences and share them as advocates for others, McGowan said.
Smorada says that he takes comfort in being able to do the things he’s always done, including teaching. Some days he’s more tired or grumpy than others, but he’s glad to have life beyond the medical treatments.
“In the long term, for me, cancer cannot be the new focus of my life,” Smorada said. “Being able to teach really keeps up my spirits.”
He treasures the meaningful conversations that he’s had about the cancer with students, friends and family and relies on the emotional support he gets from those at school, family and his church community, he says. He is content with his life and willing to learn what he can as he faces his disease.
“You just face the beauty of what life is,” Smorada said. “Unlike a lot of folks, I’ve spent 66 years working to be the me I am today and if cancer is part of that, that’s what it is.”
Posted Date: May 2011