Fighting the Good Fight: U.S. Army Veteran Beats Cancer with Help From Bay Pines Cancer Program - Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
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Fighting the Good Fight: U.S. Army Veteran Beats Cancer with Help From Bay Pines Cancer Program

September 16, 2016

BAY PINES, FL – Sitting by his wife, U.S. Army Vietnam Veteran Nelson Newby recalls the day he was diagnosed with cancer. “It was definitely an ugly day...but I had a lot of confidence in my doctors and nurses,” Newby said.  “When they told me that we were going to take care of this and I believed them."

It started with Newby experiencing worsening discomfort in and around his throat for several weeks.  Like most, the tall and proud seventy-one year old local business owner assumed it was only a common cold, or perhaps some type of allergy.  After some time, Nelson scheduled an appointment with his primary care provider at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center to report his waning condition.

At the recommendation of his doctor, Nelson underwent a series of tests to determine the cause of his problems to include consultation with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, radiology services and a biopsy.  Shortly after the biopsy was completed, he received a prompt telephone call from his ENT Surgeon Dr. Cynthia Fisher while driving into work.

“Dr. Fisher called me and told me to come in as soon as I could so we could discuss the results of the biopsy and a plan of action,” Nelson recalled.  “I didn’t want to ask too many questions over the phone, but I could tell that this was serious,” he said.

The next day, and with his wife Kimberle came to meet with Dr. Fisher.  Quickly after signing into the clinic, he was called back to the surgeon’s office.

“Dr. Fisher is someone who gets straight to the point, and when we sat down with her she did not waste anytime delivering the news,” he said.  “It was cancer.  Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, or more simply tongue cancer.  She said it was serious and that I needed to start treatment as soon as possible.”

Fighting the Good Fight

Nelson, like many other patients with similar cancer diagnoses, was moved into treatment quickly.  He completed 35 treatments at the medical center’s Radiation Oncology Clinic over the course of seven weeks (April – May 2016).  He also underwent concurrent chemotherapy and engaged in a number of supplementary medical services to help promote a successful recovery after treatment was complete.

Nelson explained that his mindset going into treatment was similar to when he was drafted into the military to serve in Vietnam.  He knew he had to do it…and just get it done.

“I tried my best to look at everything realistically,” he said.  “There was definitely some fear, but I knew I couldn’t dwell on it.  I knew I had to deal with reality, get through my treatments and move on.”

Cancer Navigation

Bay Pines' Nurse Oncology Navigator, Cindy Bowman, was by Nelson and his wife's side every step of the way. She leads the organization’s Cancer Care Navigation Program to ensure patients have what they need when they need it the most.

As one component of the healthcare system’s comprehensive cancer program, cancer navigation provides patients with a direct interface with an oncology nurse navigator who helps coordinate their care.  The nurse maintains consistent contact with each patient engaged in cancer care and helps develop individual care plans, provides patient education, manages medical appointments and other services, answers questions and provides overall advocacy and support for Veterans and their loved ones.

According to Bowman, clinical research has demonstrated that patient navigation programs in oncology settings improve access to care, decrease time from diagnosis to treatment, decrease patient anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis, and can potentially reduce health care costs.

“Most often, I am one of the first medical professionals a Veteran will see after they are diagnosed with cancer in our healthcare system, and I maintain contact with them and their loved ones throughout the entire process of treatment and even after treatment,” Bowman said.

Bowman said that all patients cope with cancer diagnosis differently.  Some exude a positive attitude like Nelson, while others are devastated and may require mental health services, spiritual support of both. But, more often than not, after the initial visit with her, Veterans and their loved ones are educated and feel empowered to move forward.

“She was right on top of everything,” Nelson said of Bowman.  “She helped me get set-up with everything necessary for treatment and a successful outcome, and never missed a day to come see me while I was in chemo.” he said.

Looking Towards the Future

After all of the treatments, medications and discussions with health care providers, Nelson waited for a follow up PET scan to determine if the cancer had been eradicated from his body.  The PET scan was completed in early September and his follow up appointment with Dr. Fisher to discuss the results was September 13.

On September 13, Nelson waited briefly in the ENT clinic before being summoned to Dr. Fisher’s office for his follow up appointment.  As always, his wife Kimberle was by his side.  As quickly as they sat down, Dr. Fisher delivered the news. 

“She told me that I was cancer free,” he said.  “…a total sigh of relief. This is something you pray for…that I prayed for.  There were so many people worried about me, and now we can all come together to celebrate.  We beat this cancer together.”

Nelson and his wife plan to have a party to celebrate the news with family and friends.  While official plans are still in the works, Nelson prefers a pool party.  He will also continue to follow up with Dr. Fisher and other medical professionals at the medical center to monitor his condition for months and years to come.

The Bay Pines VAHCS Cancer Program

Nelson is one of more than 4,000 patients who receive one or more services through the Bay Pines VAHCS’s growing cancer program.  Comprised of services like surgery, radiation oncology, chemotherapy, cancer support groups, cancer survivorship clinics and more, the program is currently the only VA-operated cancer program in the state of Florida with an active accreditation from American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer (CoC) and has been since 1995.

Because it is a CoC-accredited cancer center, Bay Pines takes a multidisciplinary approach to treating cancer as a complex group of diseases that requires consultation among surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, diagnostic radiologists, pathologists, and other cancer specialists.  This partnership results in improved patient care.

Like all CoC-accredited facilities, Bay Pines maintains a cancer registry and contributes data to the National Cancer Data Base (NCDB), a joint program of the CoC and American Cancer Society (ACS).  This nationwide oncology outcomes database is the largest clinical disease registry in the world.  These reports help facilities with their quality improvement efforts.

One of the more visible components of the program is the healthcare system’s Radiation Oncology Clinic located at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center.  The facility is equipped with two linear accelerators.  This cutting-edge radiation technology allows cancer experts to target tumors and cancerous tissue down to the millimeter, significantly limiting the potential adverse effects to the patient.  Preliminary work is also underway to expand the clinic with a new 17,375 square foot addition that will serve as a cancer infusion/chemotherapy center.  While construction has not yet started, the facility is expected to be complete in 2018 with building activation following shortly thereafter. 

The Bay Pines VAHCS’s efforts to provide and expand high-quality options for treating and preventing cancer aligns with the President’s  National Cancer Moonshot initiative announced during the State of the Union Address on January 12, 2016.  The initiative aims to “bring about a decade’s worth of advances in five years,” making more therapies available to more patients, while also improving the ability to prevent cancer, detect it at an early stage, and ultimately eliminate it entirely. Both the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs play key roles in the Cancer Moonshot as part of a whole-of-government approach.

In addition to VA’s national cancer research portfolio which includes close to 250 projects, the Million Veteran Program (MVP), with over 500,000 enrolled Veterans (more than 30 percent of whom reported a cancer diagnosis), will serve as a valuable clinical database for genetic exploration and analyses.  The Bay Pines VAHCS is an active contributor to MVP and will reach 15,000 Veteran enrollments in the next several months.

About the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
The Bay Pines VAHCS is one of the nation’s leading VA healthcare systems, employing more than 4,000 medical professionals and support staff dedicated to providing the very best care to Veterans residing in southwest Florida. The organization is the fourth busiest VA health care system in the country in terms of patients served and is accredited by The Joint Commission, Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, and several other nationally recognized accrediting organizations. The Bay Pines VAHCS operates nine facilities to include the main medical center located in Bay Pines and outpatient clinics located in Bradenton, Cape Coral, Naples, Palm Harbor, Port Charlotte, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, and Sebring. To learn more, please visit www.baypines.va.gov or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vabaypines.