November 17, 2018

Resource Center Bringing a Whole-Person Approach to Cancer Care

Larry Becker

A unique resource center housed within Loma Linda University Health in Loma Linda, California, United States, offers a single location for patient access to services and information designed to treat more than the clinical and medical aspects of a cancer diagnosis.

The Cancer Resource Center advances Loma Linda University Health’s mission to provide whole-person care, not just treat disease, the center’s coordinator said. Patients battling cancer are often overwhelmed with anxiety as they go through testing and diagnosis. They’re also flooded with information about their medical condition and potential treatment paths.

“Our services provide focused support to the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of our patients’ lives,” said Cancer Resource Center coordinator Tamie Vasquez. “All of those pieces must come together for a patient to return to total health. Our patients are not just here for a diagnosis and treatment. We make sure that the right services are made available at the right time. That’s our passion.”

Distress Score

Each patient visiting the Loma Linda University Health Cancer Center completes a distress screening form. A nurse navigator reviews the answers and can immediately refer that patient to a wide range of support services that will enhance the clinical side of their care.

“We automatically reach out to someone who has a high distress score,” said Gabriela Gutierrez, a marriage and family therapist at the Cancer Resource Center. “Often our initial contact leads to therapy or ongoing support.”

Women’s cancer support groups serve most of the Cancer Resource Center’s patients. Groups are tailored to specific needs and are open to patients and caregivers.

Onco-Sex Therapy

One important avenue of therapy available at the CRC is in onco-sex therapy.

“Cancer is increasingly becoming a chronic illness, not an acute one,” Gutierrez said. “While the immediate medical issues may be over, it changes a person, and it changes their relationships. It’s important to explore what it looks like to be in a relationship with cancer.” Virtually every patient has at least one conversation about this issue, with roughly 60 percent receiving multiple sessions to address the issue.

Gutierrez points out that societal stigmas come with illnesses, and it’s up to each patient to decide if they wish to accept or reject the stigma. Women are conditioned to identify parts of their body as equating with femininity and desirability.

“The number-one question most women ask is ‘who would want me now?’ ” Gutierrez said. “‘Who wants someone with cancer?’ I’ve had women who feel their bodies are completely unrecognizable.”

Gutierrez helps couples explore how cancer has affected their intimate relationships and addresses body image issues. Couples explore how they connected with each other before cancer, and ways that they can maintain their intimate connection despite cancer. And the results can be rewarding.

“Women will say to me, ‘I feel lighter. I feel a weight has been lifted. I feel there’s hope,’” Gutierrez said. “It’s a privilege to help people move forward.”

A Faith-Based Approach

Loma Linda University Health’s faith-based approach to health and healing adds an important component to the Cancer Resource Center’s work, according to Gutierrez. Being able to incorporate a spiritual approach is an intricate part of care — one that is taboo in many secular institutions.

“In many places, therapists are afraid to initiate conversations about God,” Gutierrez said. “They’ll wait until a patient brings religion up. God’s voice is a powerful voice for a person on this journey. I appreciate that this institution allows us to explore the spiritual dimensions of care.”

An original version of this story was published in Loma Linda University Health’s Scope magazine.