Cancer. It's a diagnosis that no patient ever wants to hear. Yet with all of the advancements that have been made in the care and treatment of the disease, more people are surviving the battle than ever before. Better screening protocols have made it easier to detect the disease in its early stages; more sophisticated equipment has increased the efficiency of treatment options. And for patients in Alaska, there is now the benefit of being able to receive cancer care closer to home.
Not that long ago, patients in the Last Frontier most often went Outside for treatment, usually to hospitals in Seattle. While some patients still make the trek down south as a result of certain diagnoses, many more stay within the state as a treatment option.
"There are still some areas where we see so few cases, for example skin lesions, that we refer the patients to hospitals down south," explained Dora Hallock, clinical nurse specialist at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. "That's just good medicine. But the majority of cancers we can treat right here at Providence."
And Providence is only one of many hospitals in the state that can provide cancer care. In addition to Providence, Alaska Regional Hospital and Fairbanks Memorial, which provide chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgical treatment options, there is also the Alaska Native Medical Center, specifically for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and many smaller community hospitals that provide ongoing chemotherapy to patients.
"As physicians become more comfortable in returning patients to smaller rural facilities, the more patients we see," explained Janet Buness, director of nursing services at Wrangell Medical Center in Wrangell. "Their oncologists in Anchorage or Seattle set up their treatment programs, and then they come back home to us for chemotherapy."
As Alaska's biggest city, Anchorage is able to support a number of facilities for those seeking cancer care. Alaska Regional Hospital diagnosed 258 new cancer patients in 2002, a decrease from 305 new diagnoses the year before.
"Our goal is to make it so that families don't have to leave Alaska to go to the Lower 48 for diagnosis and treatment," explained Judie Link, Cancer Center program director. "We want to make sure that we have the services available so that they don't have to leave their homes."
To this end, Alaska Regional's medical ontology unit provides diagnosis and treatment options, including chemotherapy and surgery, and radiation therapy through the Alaska Radiation Therapy Center, located on the Alaska Regional campus. "Our radiation programs are all accredited by the American College of Radiology, and follow FDA (Food and Drug Administration) guidelines," said Link. The hospital also relies on state of the art equipment to provide quality care for their patients, including stereotactic breast biopsy and ultrasound guided breast biopsy.
According to Link, one of the most important things that the hospital does to improve patient care is to sponsor clinical trials. "It's...