Metastases program fulfills different model of success

Kathleen McElroy underwent surgeries to her shoulder and spine and can now move without pain.

Kathleen McElroy was overwhelmed with pain and frustration. Diagnosed last December with breast cancer that had already spread to her spine, the Rockville Centre resident later showed up at a hospital with a fractured shoulder — a result of her cancer — only to be brushed aside and told simply to keep her shoulder immobile.

Referred by her sister to the North Shore-LIJ Health System, doctors here didn’t feel Ms. McElroy should have to tolerate constant agony. Her case was immediately considered by a newly formed Supportive Oncology and Pain Management Center whose focus on patients with bone and spine metastases is designed to control pain and maximize function despite advanced cancer. Ms. McElroy quickly underwent two surgeries to stabilize her spine and shoulder and is now moving about pain-free.

“I’ve had amazing treatment. They don’t say, ‘Oh my God, you have cancer,’ and then back away,” she said. “Yes, I have cancer, but I’m only 53 years old. They’re focused on the whole person, on getting you back on your feet.”

A think-tank of specialists

Founded last summer by Jane Carleton, MD, attending physician at the Monter Cancer Center and North Shore University Hospital, and a breast cancer specialist, the Supportive Oncology and Pain Management Center is co-directed by Dr. Carleton and James D’Olimpio, MD, director of supportive oncology/pain and symptom management. Many other physicians participate from a wide variety of specialties, including medical oncology, neurosurgery, orthopedic oncology, interventional radiology, radiation medicine, nuclear medicine and physical medicine.

“There are more than a hundred years of combined experience sitting under one roof,” Dr. D’Olimpio said. “The average oncology group cannot offer this because they do not have the resources.”

Patients benefit from a plan tailored to their specific needs, with “mix-and-match” combined therapies such as pain medications, surgery, hormonal treatments, radiation and treatments that either freeze or melt tumors, among others.

Attention to detail improves lives

“When we’re thinking about success, it’s a kind of different model,” Dr. D’Olimpio said. “The longer we can keep these patients’ symptoms under control, the longer they’ll live. We pay careful attention to detail to have better outcomes. Some of our patients live many years — well beyond what used to be expected.”

Dr. Carleton calls Ms. McElroy’s outcome “an extraordinary success story” and a testament to the interdisciplinary team’s ability to handle painful, complicated cases.

“You can live with cancer, and your doctors should be trying to figure out how to maximize your function instead of giving up when a case is challenging and difficult,” she said. “Yes, we’re always trying to cure people. But sometimes quality of life and lengthening life and giving hope and options are just as important.”

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