Combating cancer

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August 30, 2010 // UPDATED 11:42 am - August 30, 2010
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Decorated in neutral tones and blond wood flooring, the infusion room at the Hennepin Comprehensive Cancer Center was designed to feel calm and welcoming to the roughly 500 patients who receive chemotherapy treatments there each year.

Center Manager Kelly Porter said one session may run up to six hours, so patients — who receive their infusions in recliners in one of 11 small patient bays ringing the room — are made to feel comfortable. They read, watch TV or, like 48-year-old Desiree Jackson of Minneapolis, three months into chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer in March, simply relax as much as possible.

“I just try to nod off a little,” Jackson said. “I just like to get it done and over with.”

From his desk in the center of the room, staff nurse Daniel Finke has had a front-row view of the progress in treating many types of cancer in his 22-year career. Finke recalled reading in 1988 about cancer therapies that sounded like “science fiction” at the time.

“Now, here I am hanging actual [IV] bags of those things,” he said. “It’s really come a long way.

“There’s so many things we can offer patients, not only in terms of therapies but symptom control, being able to help people get through the process of their treatment in much better shape and in much less suffering than in the bad old days,” Finke said.

For cancer center Medical Director Dr. Douglas Rausch, the ever-expanding menu of effective treatment options is part of what makes his work exciting. Then there is the detective work: While the course of treatment for an early stage breast cancer may be fairly straightforward, for example, Rausch said and his team must attack rarer diseases with critical thinking and collaboration.

Rausch countered at every opportunity the perception that working with cancer patients was grim, emotionally trying work.

He recalled the recent case of an elderly woman who already had “terribly advanced disease” when she received her first chemotherapy treatment. Her adult children helped her rest comfortably at home for two weeks, but her condition suddenly became worse the same morning she was to receive her second round of chemotherapy.

The children rushed her to the hospital, but followed their mother’s wish to forego extraordinary life support. She died a short time later.

“You might think that’s all depressing, but I was watching the love story,” Rausch said. “They were happy that she’s in a better place now.”

He added: “You have to go to a movie sometimes to see something that’s not even half as good as that.”