Whether they are coming from across the state, across the region, or across the country, more than 1,000 people each year arrive at the University of Colorado Cancer Center for treatment, surgery, or a second opinion on their cancer diagnosis.
“We are the only academic cancer center in Colorado and a few of the surrounding states, and we try to be sensitive to the fact that a lot of people are traveling long distances to be here,” says Wells Messersmith, MD, associate director of clinical services for the CU Cancer Center, and chief medical officer of oncology services for UCHealth. “We’re aware that people are traveling long distances not only for a specialized second opinion, but also for cancer treatment itself, because they prefer to be treated at a high-volume center with a lot of experience in whatever cancer they have.”
Research and specialization
Because of its selection as a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and National Comprehensive Cancer Network facility — meaning that it meets rigorous standards for transdisciplinary, state-of-the-art research focused on developing new and better approaches to preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer — as well as its multidisciplinary approach to treatment and care, the CU Cancer Center is a natural choice for many people in Colorado and surrounding states when they receive a cancer diagnosis. But the center also attracts patients from around the country who are drawn to the CU Cancer Center because of its specialization in all types of cancer, from the common to the rare.
Some patients — particularly those with rare tumor types or complicated medical problems — come to the CU Cancer Center for all of their care, Messersmith explains, staying close to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus for a period of weeks while they undergo any combination of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Others come to the CU Cancer Center for an initial consultation, then receive chemotherapy closer to home, returning to Colorado for radiation and surgery if necessary.
“The chemotherapy part of their care might be very standardized and can be competently and confidently given closer to home, yet there’s a recognition that the facility closer to home can’t do specialized surgeries or radiation techniques,” Messersmith says. “So those parts are done here, then they go back home to finish treatment.”
Access to clinical trials
For patients with rarer or more treatment-resistant cancer, the CU Cancer Center also is an attractive option because of the multiple clinical trials being overseen by CU Cancer Center researchers at any given time. These research studies test drugs and other treatment options not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“We’ve had people fly in from all over the U.S., as well as internationally — from places such as Canada, Central and South America, Europe, and Africa — in order to have access to a therapy that is personalized for their specific cancer,” Messersmith says. “If it’s something like a rare gene fusion, there might not be anything available in their home country. It might be a trial that’s only open in a couple of centers across the world.”
Whatever their reason for coming to the CU Cancer Center, the visitors are well taken care of from the moment they arrive, Messersmith says. Infusion appointments are often set up for the day the patient arrives, so they have access to IV fluids or IV pain medicine. The multidisciplinary clinic is also set up with the patient’s convenience in mind.
“One of the reasons we established the multidisciplinary clinics is that patients can get everything done in one day,” Messersmith says. “Instead of making multiple appointments to see a medical oncologist, a surgeon, a radiation oncologist, and a genetic counselor, we compact all of that into one day. Most patients get their scans in the morning, then they see the genetic counselors, the social workers, and the nutritionist, then they’re evaluated in clinic. We make a plan, and up to four providers at once will go down and see the patient. It’s one conversation that sets the entire plan of care for the next six months.”
Some patients also value the availability of electronic health records (via computer or cellphone) which allows patients, authorized family members, and local providers to review clinic notes and test results at all CU Cancer Center facilities.
Know before you go
The CU Cancer Center employs nurse navigators and social workers who work with visiting patients on lodging and travel costs, if necessary. The CU Cancer Center also has agreements with local hotels to provide discounted rooms for patients of CU Cancer Center providers.
When people have to travel long distances for cancer diagnosis and treatment, experts also recommend:
- Talking to the patient’s insurance company or local hospital about other options for logistics, cost, and emotional support.
- Looking into local patient advocacy organizations that can help with support groups, meals, and financial support.
- Plan the travel route ahead of time, and pay attention to local weather conditions.
Experts also recommend bringing along:
- A map of the area where the cancer center is located, including hotels and restaurants.
- Recent medical records and an updated list of medications.
- Entertainment, such as a book or tablet.
- Comfortable, loose-fitting clothing.
- Favorite snacks or drinks.