Teaming up to survive cancer

Laverne Blakely and Karen Dunn
Laverne Blakely (left) and her cancer coach, Karen Dunn, are part of the UC Davis Cancer Center’s WeCARE! Peer Navigator Program. The program matches newly diagnosed cancer patients with trained cancer survivors, who provide information on the disease and treatment options, as well as resources to help individuals and their families.

Posted April 18, 2012

When Laverne Blakely was diagnosed with breast cancer last October, she was given a folder chock full of brochures and booklets, care sheets and other patient-care tips. A former playground supervisor for the Sacramento City Unified School District, she felt frustrated plowing through the thick stack of information.

“Everyone’s experience with cancer is not the same. I felt like what I was reading was not pertinent to my specific case of illness. It wasn’t helping me,” the 55-year-old Sacramento resident says.

So when Blakely learned about a UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center program matching newly diagnosed patients with breast cancer survivors for one-on-one support, she knew it was right for her. The WeCARE! Peer Navigator Program trains cancer survivors to guide new patients through their course of treatment, connect them with community services and offer an understanding shoulder on which to lean.

Taking on cancer together

The program paired Laverne with retired Sacramento music teacher and breast cancer survivor Karen Dunn.

WeCARE! Peer Navigator Program

To find out about the next peer navigator training session or to request a peer navigator, e-mail Patricia Robinson or call 916-734-0823. Click here to learn more about the program.

“Karen is my angel,” Blakely says. “She said, ‘We’re going to beat this. Not me, not you, but we.’”

Dunn was as good as her word.

“Karen has been right there with me from the beginning to now. If there was a procedure they were going to do on me, I asked her how it was going to feel and what the outcome was going to be. She told me things to look for and what to ask the doctors. She’s met me at most of my appointments, and was sitting right there with me when they gave me my chemotherapy. She was right there when I had my surgery, and when I broke my glasses and couldn’t afford to replace them, Karen helped find a way to get me a new pair that was paid for,” Blakely says.

For her part, Dunn finds volunteering as a peer navigator tremendously rewarding.

“I didn’t have this kind of support when I was going through my cancer treatment. I thought if I could help others, they wouldn’t feel so alone. Being a survivor yourself makes you ask the right questions, gives you more empathy. You care more because you’ve walked in their shoes, and you know how to help them.”

Comprehensive cancer care

Chong-Xian Pan and Paul Henderson
UC Davis oncologist Chong-Xian Pan (left) and toxicologist Paul Henderson have developed a technique called microdosing to help determine whether chemotherapy will be beneficial for individual patients.

Cancer is one of four major focus areas in UC Davis Health System’s new 2011– 2016 Strategic Plan, and the WeCARE! Peer Navigator Program is one of many innovative initiatives that make cancer care a core health-system strength. Basic cancer research, clinical trials and patient-outreach programs engage UC Davis clinicians and researchers from many disciplines who battle the disease on every front. This highly integrated approach continues to make important inroads in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

UC Davis Health System extends this multifaceted cancer-care approach to outlying communities through the use of telemedicine. Its Virtual Tumor Board Project allows oncologists throughout the region to discuss their cancer cases with leading clinicians at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Advanced videoconferencing equipment has been installed at the four community cancer centers that are part of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Care Network. The equipment can transmit video and audio of the physician presenting the case, as well as detailed images of radiological scans and other tests. Patients gain access to the latest treatment approaches, while physicians learn from the knowledge and experiences of their colleagues.

Cancer cells targeted

One puzzle that faces virtually all oncologists is how to determine the most effective treatment for individual patients. UC Davis oncologist Chong-Xian Pan and toxicologist Paul Henderson have developed a technique called microdosing to determine whether certain types of chemotherapy drugs will be effective in killing cancer cells. The approach involves infusing tiny quantities of a labeled chemotherapy drug into bladder cancer patients, just hours before the surgical removal of cancer. They then determine how thoroughly the drug was incorporated into bladder tumor cells. The researchers found that tumors that readily took up microdoses of the drug were more susceptible to the drug. The technique won the 2011 UC Davis Big Bang Competition. With the award, and support from the health system’s Medical Technology Commercialization Clinic, Henderson hopes to market the technology and expand its potential application to other cancers.

Cancers are notorious for multiplying by myriad pathways. The UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures is investigating one potentially crucial route – via tumor stem cells. Institute scientists are studying whether interrupting the growth of tumor stem cells might prove fruitful for preventing cancer relapses.

Across campus, nearly 150 scientists are working on stem cell-related research projects. And they are spreading interest and excitement in the field to the next generation. This past summer, California high school students contributed to such leading-edge research while working in the labs of UC Davis stem cell scientists with the support of a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)-funded Creativity Award. UC Davis intends to ignite student interest in research while educating tomorrow’s stem cell scientists by encouraging their participation in this program.

A $1.3 million CIRM “Bridges to Stem Cell Research” grant also helps UC Davis train the next generation of stem cell scientists by supporting internships for Sacramento State graduate students in UC Davis labs.

Adam Lee and Ruben Gonzalez
The WeCare! Peer Navigator Program pairs cancer survivors with patients newly diagnosed with prostate, bladder or breast cancer. Above, prostate cancer patient Adam Lee (left) consults with his peer navigator, Ruben Gonzalez.

UC Davis cancer researchers further along in their career paths will benefit from a five-year, $3.5 million grant to develop cancer physician-scientists. This National Institutes of Health grant to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center will support training of junior faculty members who conduct patient-oriented research. The new Clinical Oncology Research Career Development Program will offer junior faculty members opportunities to learn about clinical-trial design, the molecular biology of cancer and biostatistics, among other topics. Led by UC Davis medical oncologist Primo Lara, the program is expected to speed the translation of laboratory discoveries into bedside treatments.

Healing patients

All of these efforts and more are focused on a key goal -- healing patients. That’s an aim embraced by the entire UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center community, from director and cancer researcher Ralph deVere White to Laverne Blakely and other patients.

Inspired by her experiences with the WeCARE! Peer Navigator Program, Blakely plans to become a peer navigator herself.

“I have to wait two years to be a volunteer, and I will do it as soon as I am eligible because I want to make a difference just as Karen made a difference in my life,” she says. “Anybody who has cancer [knows] you can’t get through it all by yourself. You need positive, loving people around you to survive.”