Dr. Jennifer Aron sees cancer care as a collaborative effort at the SECU Comprehensive Cancer Center at CarolinaEast Medical Center.


“With cancer care it’s so much a team sport that you have to support the family, you have to support the patient,” said Aron, a palliative care specialist. “If there are people that are left out, then the care of the patient is going to suffer.”


She said some patients might get nervous when they hear they’re going to see a palliative care doctor, since the field often is equated with hospice and end-of-life care.


“They think that there’s something the doctors are not telling them,” Aron said. “The reality is that we see patients with all types of cancer, with all stages of disease, with all goals of care from people who are being treated with the intention of trying to cure their disease to people who have a metastatic disease that we’ll never be able to cure.”


She said palliative care doctors work closely with hospice when it’s appropriate, “but we see patients that have gotten through their cancer treatment and are still really symptomatic or struggling – just to try and help support them, help them through, help them feel better, improve their quality of life and support them through the process.”


Most patients seen by palliative care doctors at CarolinaEast are in the middle of some sort of treatment, Aron said.


“Some of those people have potentially curable cancer and other people are just getting treatment with the goal of trying to control their disease, though we know we won’t be able to cure it,” she said.


Family members and caregivers often accompany patients on their visits, Aron said, and they frequently are dealing with issues related to cancer treatment, too.


“I tell my patients all the time that cancer is really hard on the people who are experiencing it, but it’s also really hard on those caregivers, too, that they have entered into a new phase in their life and we do whatever we can to help support them,” she said.


Patients usually are referred to palliative care by their medical or radiation oncologists, though some are referred by primary care providers or other specialists, Aron said. Most patients who have a need will qualify for the care, which is covered by most health insurances, she said.


“We work really closely with nutrition and social work and massage therapy and all the different support services that we have here,” Aron said. “A lot of times they’ll recognize a need that maybe that patient’s physician hasn’t seen, and they’ll make a recommendation to that patient’s medical oncologist or radiation oncologist.”


She said what she loves most about what she does is that it’s very multidisciplinary.


“We all are talking regularly about these patients to just try and get them the best care possible,” Aron said. “It’s nice in a hospital like this where it’s easy to communicate with all members of the team. It has been wonderful.”


She said her palliative care partner Dr. Robert Fisher has training in integrative oncology.


“Both of us really focus on what other tools can you put in this patient’s toolbox to help them become an active participant in their cancer care,” Aron said. “Whether that’s general wellness, getting them in touch with our meditation group or our yoga groups, nutrition, exercise, whatever it is. How else can they be trying to take the best care of themselves and help whatever their cancer treatment be as effective as possible?”


Medications are a part of that care, she said.


“A big part of what we do is symptom management, whether that’s pain, anxiety, depression, shortness of breath, appetite, fatigue, you name it,” Aron said. “We do a lot of prescribing of medications to help with that.”


She said she and her team at CarolinaEast spend a lot of time talking about quality of life and how to make the most out of whatever a patient’s situation is.


“A lot of people are feeling pretty poorly when we’re seeing them,” she said. “I think if we don’t focus on living while you’re going through cancer treatment, we’re really missing an opportunity because regardless of what the outcome is, this time is valuable. Any way we can help identify those goals and help support people to get to those goals is important.”


Advanced care planning, including living wills and healthcare power of attorneys, also is a priority, not only for cancer patients, but for everybody, Aron said.


“Every individual, every person out there, should be having conversations with their family members about if something happens, what do I want. Because if you don’t talk about it, you never know,” she said.


Aron said she encourages cancer patients undergoing treatment to complete advanced care paperwork to help eliminate the burden of decision making that might end up falling on family members.


Palliative care is part of a holistic approach to medicine and cancer treatment, she said.


“I think we have fantastic medical oncologists and radiation oncologists who take excellent care of their patients,” Aron said. “I think with supportive care and palliative care, you have an opportunity to pull all of that together and really focus on the whole of the patient and listen to what the issues are that are coming up that might be affecting how they’re getting to treatment or how they’re tolerating things or what other stressors that might be contributing to how they’re doing.”


Those stressors are very real, she said.


“If you don’t talk about financial stresses or psycho-social stresses or the fact that your caregiver is getting totally burnt out, you can’t truly treat that patient the best way that you can,” Aron said.


Being able to work closely with other providers and have the time to focus on things that might be standing in the way of getting good cancer treatment or overall care is a good opportunity, she said.


“We just have a really nice team to be able to focus on that whole person and focus on how we make you well in the biggest sense of the word possible, not just get you through cancer treatment, but how do we help you live the best you can under these really, really stressful and hard circumstances,” Aron said.


“It’s an honor and a privilege for me. You meet people at a very difficult time of their lives, but there are real incredible opportunities to help in meaningful ways.”