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A Holiday Like No Other

As the holidays draw near it’s hard not to be disappointed that in this painful pandemic year, we’ll also be giving up the things we enjoy doing; parties and shopping, cooking for extended family, and heading to church services. But as I go to work each day to care those with cancer, I’m reminded what it means to find acceptance this holiday season. To find joy in a phone conversation. To give joy with a gift to our local food pantry or Humane Society in honor of a friend. In rediscovering a book of poems loved as a college kid.

At Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center we looked around us to find our gratitude and it was everywhere this year. We stood in awe of the healthcare workers saving the lives of those with Covid-19. Neighbors watching out for families that have lost a job, and the food insecure. The heartrending challenges of parents working from home while their children learn virtually. This pandemic has taken so much out of us. But the holidays don’t have to feel like one more painful loss. Over the years we’ve worked with cancer patients, we have found that holidays take on special meaning: the simplest gifts give the most profound joy.

This holiday season, as we all must do our part to slow the march of Covid-19, we’ll be living the lessons that our cancer patients already know. That by stepping out of the whirlwind we can find deeper meaning in our lives. That we aren’t stuck at home, we’re safely at home and finding our own joy in the simple things. From nature walks or feeding the birds, to a gift you make in your own kitchen, may you find the true spirit of the holidays.


Lung cancer? We see it everyday at Turville Bay and treating it can be a huge challenge. Lung cancer is a silent threat to those that use or have used tobacco, to those exposed to radon in the home, and those exposed to asbestos and certain metals in the workplace. The good news? 

  1. We know to use the protective gear provided in the workplace and it’s proven to save lives.
  2. We know that radon is present in soils containing uranium like ours here in central Wisconsin. (Perhaps this blog will serve as a reminder to have the air checked in your home as it can change over time and consider mitigation if the radon level is high.)
  3. And, we know that tobacco use presents the biggest threat to our health.

Why do I call lung cancer a silent threat? Because the lack of symptoms allows it to grow unchecked often until it threatens our very existence. Lung cancer takes more lives each year than colon, prostate and breast cancer combined even though it’s treatable. Why?

Screening for lung cancer was not based on science. X-rays and sputum tests could be requested by a patient but were not reliable. Screening had no real guidelines and that meant that many patients were symptomatic by the time they were diagnosed. We’d much rather treat them earlier, before symptoms occur, because we have a better chance of a good outcome. But we needed a screening tool that worked.

There is good news. A study that had been underway since 2001 involving thousands of individuals produced compelling data. It found that heavy tobacco users who got low-dose CT scans had a 20% lower chance of dying from lung cancer than those who got chest X-rays. The evidence was so powerful that Medicare, Medicaid and many insurance companies now cover annual low-dose CT screening for those that meet certain criteria:

  • Adults aged 55-80
  • Having smoked a pack a day for 30 years or the equivalent, such as 2 packs a day for 15 years
  • Currently smoke or quit within the last 15 years
  • Have a physician’s order requesting the screening

No, these screening guidelines are not going to solve the problem of lung cancer. But it’s a good start. My message? If you meet the criteria consider screening. It could save your life.  Take control over your health. Quit tobacco and embrace a healthy lifestyle. You’ll breathe easier. Actually we all will.

Breast Cancer Screenings

Every two minutes a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s more than 1,400 women every day. Breast cancer is right behind skin cancer as the most common cancer affecting women. In between these statistics there is some good news: women who get screened regularly have a 47% lower risk of dying from breast cancer. In this time of Covid19, have you missed your annual screening? So many clinics were closed to patients as our healthcare providers worked to keep patients safe from the coronavirus, many appointments were canceled or rescheduled.

“Delays in screening can lead to delays in diagnoses,” Erica Warner, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School says. “In his June 19 editorial in Science, Dr. Norman Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, said that modeling predicts an excess of 10,000 deaths from breast cancer and colorectal cancer over the next 10 years because of the pandemic.”

Here in south central Wisconsin, SSM Health is implementing strategies to help people return to care and regular health screenings. Through our healthcare teams and cancer care teams we are emphasizing how important screening is. We have put in place stringent safety measures to ensure every patient has access to regular cancer screenings, mammograms and biopsies. We’ve made so much progress against cancer in the US and around the world. When we see a dramatic drop in breast cancer screening this year over last year, it can only mean one thing: breast cancers are going undiagnosed.

Schedule your annual breast cancer screening now by calling your primary care physician’s office. Talk with your friends and family, encourage them to be screened, too. All women should be proactive regarding breast cancer. It can make all the difference.

Return to Cancer Screenings

Why do we screen for cancer regularly? You know, those questions your healthcare team asks and the routine blood tests at your annual checkup? In healthcare, we use those regular screenings to uncover a problem early when it can be easier to treat. Cancer is one of the things we want to catch early. Prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, oral cancer, lung cancer and others are part of routine screening for most of us depending on our medical history. So why do we think screening is so important? The answer is screening works. Early detection, even when you don’t have symptoms, increases the chance of finding cancer early when treatment is most likely to be successful.

What we feared the most, when Covid-19 hit us, was that those early interventions in cancer care would be less likely to happen. That people would delay screenings because our healthcare system was working so hard to treat our community affected by the coronavirus. And further, that people with concerning symptoms would delay conversations with their physician. Those delays can lead to a diagnosis of cancer that’s more advanced. Sadly, we’re seeing more advanced disease in cancer treatment clinics, like Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center, across the United States.

When cancer begins, like coronavirus, it’s an invisible enemy. But it’s there, and it must be dealt with. Start a conversation with your healthcare provider, because cancer won’t wait. Returning to annual checkups and cancer screenings are safe as our clinic, along with others in the SSM Healthcare system, have stringent protocols in place to protect you and our healthcare providers. Take control of your health and make an appointment, it’s good peace of mind.  

Continuum of Care

As physicians that care for cancer patients, we know our relationships are unique. Now, with the Covid-19, it’s hard to remember that every day patients are hearing those words: you have cancer. As the world swirls around our patients, we bring our knowledge, training, today’s best technology, and deliver treatment every day. And, we gently encourage patients to push back all the noise of life, to allow themselves time to focus on their own care.

We care for our patients each day for several weeks, and it’s in the bonding that we are reminded of this: each patient has a life before, during, and after their diagnosis. Our relationship is a small part of their care continuum.  The continuum I refer to follows a patient from birth through end of life. It includes preventive care, medical incidents like a broken wrist from a fall, rehabilitation, and yes, serious illness like Covid-19 can be. It’s childbirth, nutrition and vaccines that keep us healthy. It may mean hospital stays for acute care, in-home care, or long-term care. Here at Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center, as part of SSM Health Cancer Care, treatment covers a brief period of time on the continuum in each patient’s life. Our treatment helps patients with cancer and other serious illnesses at all levels and stages of care.

The Care Continuum model is like a bridge between advances in medicine and the people we care for. It guides us in the use of advanced medical technology, ensuring it is used only when appropriate. The continuum integrates seamlessly with our philosophy of patient-centered care at Turville Bay. During the patient’s time at Turville Bay they are at the center of our work, their preferences and physical comfort. We educate, listen carefully, and develop a partnership with each patient in their care.

As physicians we are trained to heal, but for some patient’s improving quality of life is their goal. It’s through patient centered care that we help patients and their family members gain control over their medical journey and find the path they are most comfortable with. We communicate constantly with their referring physician and personal physician during treatment. And, as patients return to health, we return them to their personal physician within SSM Health’s continuum of care.

In Sickness and In Health

Cancer treatment is a powerful experience. Following diagnosis, patients climb the steep learning curve of cancer and its treatment. Which treatment is best for my cancer and for me? Chemotherapy? Radiation Therapy? Both? The treatment planning begins. Anxiety is common, “have I picked the right medical team?” Will the treatment we’ve decided on work? Will I do well?

Caring for our patients is an honor and a challenge because every patient’s journey is different. Emotions, side effects, energy levels, the strength of the patient’s at-home care team, every situation is different. Recognizing that, we have the staff of SSM Health’s Cancer Care in place to help us help you. Like mental health providers, nutritionists, and palliative care specialists. Above all, our teams at Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center are such caring individuals they often spot issues before the patient is fully aware.

Our physicians, nurses, and therapists are here to help before, during and after treatment, using extensive training and expertise to help patients through the experience. Sometimes there are rough spots and as a community we hit one of those in March of this year with Covid19. As a cancer community we strive to carefully keep every patient healthy as treatment proceeds. A simple cold can derail treatment for a bit. With Covid19, our community found a new danger to cancer patients. We quickly put stringent screening protocols in place to protect patients, and the staff that cares for them, each day. Our patients often tell us that they feel confident and cared for while in treatment with us and that’s the highest compliment.

We are here for our patients through sickness and health in the parlance of wedding vows around the world. And we’re grateful to our greater community for adhering to safety guidelines even when it seems unlikely to matter to a healthy individual. Wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and monitoring your own health carefully each day matters deeply to the cancer patient that lives down your street. The path you cross may affect all of us.

Cancer Care Won’t Wait

The Covid19 crisis has changed all of us. But even as the virus seems to rule our lives, patients are diagnosed with cancer each day. New cancers and metastatic cancers. Because every patient deserves our best, cancer care continues. Extensive treatment planning, radiation therapy, palliative care, and stereotactic radiosurgery. Some things have changed. Here at Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center we have added strict elements to the daily screening of every patient, caregiver and staff member that enters our doors. Before treatment can begin everyone is screened for the protection of our patients, our staff and all our families. As they say, we are in this together, and we protect each other with these measures.

As our annual Cancer Survivors & Thrivers Ice Cream Social slated for June is placed on hold, we look forward to celebrating how far we’ve come with everyone touched by cancer in June, 2021. And, we encourage a cocooning of self-care and positivity for every patient and give them permission to tune out the news and focus on their own recovery. With our partners in SSM Health Cancer Care we continue the fight. From their first symptoms, to diagnosis, through treatment, and a return to wellness, together we heal.

High Precision Tracks Tumors

When a cancer diagnosis calls for radiation therapy our highly trained staff delivers the treatment with innovative technology. A custom designed treatment plan for each patient provides us with a map. We visualize soft tissue, manage the motion with each breath the patient takes, and track the tumor. We deliver therapy directly to the tumor, precisely, all with the help of some pretty incredible technology. Onboard imaging, streamlined control, sub-millimeter accuracy. We deliver it the first day, and each day, as treatment progresses. As the tumor shrinks, we follow its subtle movements within the body and continue to treat it.

So, what happens to the patient with breast cancer, or prostate cancer, or one of the many cancers we treat? They arrive daily for treatment over a series of weeks, and we get to know them. They feel the confidence and the care our team delivers. We listen, support, and encourage them along with treat them for cancer. Many, if not most patients, recover from their cancer after treatment.

We treat those patients with complex cancers, and metastatic cancers. Technology allows us to deliver the treatment so precisely that we can relieve symptoms and control disease in specific spots where cancer has spread. We decrease pain, lower the risk of broken bones weakened by cancer, improve breathing from a blocked airway, or relieve pressure on a nerve that may be causing numbness or pain. Palliative care of this type improves quality of life giving the patient time and freedom to pursue their interests, their family time or work. It may continue over months, and even years, for those living with cancer.

Radiation therapy. We use it every day to heal.

Finding Joy

The holidays can take on special meaning to those fighting serious illness. Reuniting with family, quiet conversations, and savoring simple joys are the best part of the holidays, says one cancer survivor. Her advice to us during this holiday season is measured in common sense, spirituality, and the love of those around her.

This holiday season consider stepping back and reevaluating choices: big meals or small informal ones? Shopping for gifts or finding small personal ways to gift? Baking dozens of cookies for family and friends or baking a few for the joy of it? If it isn’t joyous, pass on it for now and don’t feel guilty for the choices you make. Instead enjoy feeling peaceful and grateful for the chance to choose.

Thousands of our patients have traveled this same path over the years. Many have shared that slowing the pace of the holidays was a great gift that they took along into recovery. It seems they felt closer to the true spirit of the holidays.

It’s All About You: Individualized Breast Cancer Care

Doctors at Turville Bay SSM Health

As Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center formalizes its ties with SSM Health we’ve strengthened our relationships with those physicians that form our cancer care teams. I’m happy to introduce Dr. Dana Henkel, a surgeon that works closely with breast cancer patients. Here, Dr. Henkel speaks to our individualized care at SSM Health. Dr. Michelle Mackay, Radiation Oncologist at Turville Bay, a member of SSM Health

“In 2019, around 268,600 U.S. women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, according to American Cancer Society. But even though breast cancer is a common disease, each patient’s situation is unique. What works well for one patient, may not work as well for another.

That’s why at SSM Health, we’re focused on individualized treatment and recovery plans. I’m part of the breast cancer care team, which includes all the specialties needed for comprehensive breast cancer care: surgeons, medical oncologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists, genetic counselors and a nurse navigator. We work together to develop and deliver a personalized treatment plan that is right for each patient.

When surgery is a part of the treatment plan, I get to know what’s important to my patients and what concerns they may have, before recommending a surgical approach. We use an array of innovative surgical technologies depending on the patient’s specific needs, including technologies that enable precise surgical navigation when removing cancerous tissue.

At SSM Health, we offer comprehensive breast cancer care that is individualized for each patient. Our team of breast cancer care specialists diagnose and treat over 150 new breast cancers per year, each with an individualized treatment plan.”  Dr. Dana Henkel, SSM Health Surgeon