(CHICAGO) — For patients dealing with life-endangering diseases such as cancer that has spread to the brain, trying to reach medical experts to determine next steps in medical care can be almost as anxiety-provoking as the diagnosis itself. In a perfect world, patients would be able to call specialists directly to ask questions and set up timely appointments.
That’s exactly the type of access a neurosurgeon and a radiation oncologist at Rush University Medical Center are now providing.
Physicians at Rush who treat cancers that spread to the brain — a grave diagnosis — are giving patients a direct line — (312) RUSH-MET (787-4638) — to reach them in order to improve care for a time-sensitive disease. Patients whose cancer has spread to the brain usually live just 12 weeks without treatment, but they can live vastly longer with effective treatments.
“These extra months are literally like a lifetime to our patients,” said Dr. Lorenzo Muñoz, a neurosurgeon at Rush, who stresses access, options and hope for dealing with the disease.
Twenty to 40 percent of all people who develop cancer have it spread, or metastasize, to the brain. This is more common for some cancers, such as those of the breast and lung. An estimated 98,000 to 170,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States each year.
Now patients can call a special phone number to directly reach a neurosurgeon, Munoz, or a radiation oncologist, Dr. Aidnag Diaz, the two specialists who evaluate each patient with cancer that has spread to the brain. If both physicians are unavailable, callers will leave a voice mail and one of the physicians will call patients back by the end of the day. Patients will have an appointment within one business day, and they will be seen by both the radiation oncologist and the neurosurgeon.
The new phone access was created by Muñoz and his colleagues — who see more metastasized brain cancer patients than any group in Chicago — because many patients come to them after a prolonged period from the initial diagnosis, allowing the cancer to spread further in the brain. Muñoz and Diaz, who are researchers in the field, believe that brain cancer patients should not have to wait weeks for an appointment. If patients are referred to Muñoz by other physicians, Muñoz promptly reports back these physicians after seeing the patient.
“We believe the first appointment should result in clear options for the patient, and there is no one treatment approach suited to all patients,” Muñoz said. “The benefit of the same-day consultation between a radiation oncologist and a neurosurgeon is an immediate treatment plan tailored to each person.”
Treatment for metastasized brain cancers most likely involves some degree of precise, image-guided radiation therapy, called radiosurgery, which directs highly focused beams of radiation to the cancer. “We do not believe that whole-brain radiation is necessary for most cases,” Diaz said. “One size does not fit all.”
Some patients may also require a minimally invasive, micro-neurosurgical procedure to remove cancerous tissue using a surgical approach that usually does not require shaving the head.
“Sometimes a combination of both radiation and neurosurgery are required. Sometimes one or the other is recommended,” Diaz said. “The important thing is to have a multidisciplinary team review each patient’s situation and circumstances to arrive at the best possible treatment.”
“The thing that makes me the happiest is when I see patients in follow up visits, six months, a year later, and they are still able to participate in family occasions and some of them continue their jobs,” Muñoz said. “We know that the reason that they are still capable of those things is because we acted promptly.”