By Mark J. Bonamo
One of the most difficult diagnoses, that anyone can receive is learning that they have cancer. Immediate questions come to mind, such as, will I survive, how difficult will be the treatments, and what will be the impact on the quality of my life. Dr. Fazal Bari, Medical Director of Oncology at Saint Clare’s Health, along with his medical team is committed to providing the answers in a manner that drives out the fear and delivers hope. Their core beliefs are to treat their patients with the most advanced and scientifically-based individualized approach delivered with a compassionate human touch.
Dr. Bari discussed how cancer care has made significant advances for individualizing treatment resulting from improvements in technology that provide treatment options unimaginable only a few years ago. The approach to cancer treatment was to treat the disease rather than focus on the individual patient’s driver of their cancer.
“The technological changes over the past five years has been advancing cancer care increasingly more personalized. We always knew that breast, colon, lung and prostate cancer all behaved differently and spread differently. If you take five separate patients with the same type of cancer and give them the same type of treatment, they may all respond differently. We never had a way to identify the unique things that would predict how they do with certain therapies,” Bari said. “Now, we have the technology to find the genetic code that many of these cancers carry. This allows us to target specific areas of cancer growth so we can best help our patients.”
Help for patients can come in the form of the high-quality diagnostic imaging available at Saint Clare’s Health, including CT scans, MRIs and 3D mammograms, which can detect diseases early, therefore facilitating effective treatment.
Some advancements in treatment technologies allow for more accurate and therefore less invasive and often in less treatments.
“We can now take a tissue sample and find out what is the driving mechanism behind that cancer, then treat and control it with less collateral damage and side effects,” Bari said. “Within the next decade, we may even be able to do diagnoses through the blood samples and not have to do tissue biopsies.”
Localized and general therapies both play a role in fighting cancer. An example of localized therapy offered at Saint Clare’s Health includes high-tech linear radiation treatments that are very precise.
“Stereotactic radiosurgery is an excellent localized treatment option that my patients receive at Saint Clare’s Health,” Dr. Bari said. “It treats the area that needs to be treated with less number of doses and preserves normal tissue around the cancer.”
Generalized therapy has traditionally been isolated to chemotherapy but current advances have expanded to many options.
“Immune therapy can sometimes work better than chemotherapy by using the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer without as many side effects,” Dr. Bari said. “Genetic sequencing tests are the next generation of care where we’ll be able to find out which medications work best against certain mutations that lead to and contribute to disease. Currently, some mutations in certain genes can be treated with a pill.”
For many patients, the consideration of their quality of life is a critical component in the battle to prolong life during the fight against cancer. Dr. Bari points out that the changes in the practice of medicine have boosted the opportunities to maintain the quality of life.
“When we talk about patients with advanced cancer, there is no use in doing what needs to be done to prolong life if we’re not doing what needs to be done to preserve the quality of life,” Dr. Bari said. “Some of the biggest strides that we’ve made in oncology over the years are the ancillary medications. For example, we have medications now that work on the nausea center of the brain that helps control it. We can give shots that prevent the immune system from tanking so that patients don’t wind up in the hospital with infections. There are ways we can cool the scalp so that chemotherapy doesn’t generate as much hair loss. We can mitigate and minimize the effects of traditional chemotherapy now in so many ways.”
According to Dr. Bari, a doctor’s compassionate approach is another critical component in treating cancer patients.
“Empathy and understanding are so important in our work. Everybody needs it. You have to give people realistic hope while they’re going through something very difficult,” Dr. Bari said. “We want to ask patients what their hobbies are and the things that bring them joy. If someone enjoys playing an instrument or knitting, we don’t want to use drugs that may cause numbness and limit their ability to do those things. Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, are so radically different now. We make every effort to ensure that we educate our patients so they know that.”
Dr. Bari and his team also implement COVID protective measures for the safety of patients particularly during the pandemic.
“We are extremely diligent that our game is at a level even higher than normal COVID protocols,” Dr. Bari said. “We deep clean our facilities more regularly giving attention to all safety protocols than ever due to the immunocompromised patients that we treat. We had an ultraviolet sterilization system installed in our HVAC system, so the air is constantly being cleaned and not recirculated. We are truly doing everything we can.”
There are several preventative steps that people can take to detect cancer at its earliest stage. Well-known screening procedures, such as mammographies, colonoscopies, PSA tests and Pap smears are effective ways that patients can play a proactive role against cancer.
However, while cancer can obviously be frightening, Bari notes that the biggest fear people should have when dealing with cancer is fear itself.
“Clear-headed decisions don’t come from fear. They come from working with your doctor to get the best result,” Bari said. “All of the physicians that we work with here at Saint Clare’s know that there is the data of medicine, and then there is the art of medicine. That art includes working with people in your community. We work with people to make sure that our treatment approach isn’t just about length of life, but about the quality of life during the fight against disease. One of the great things about cancer treatment is that it can be done very effectively on a local level. At Saint Clare’s Health, we work very hard to ensure that we are medically ahead of the curve, but are still around the corner from our patients.”
“We have a fine radiology department, great pathologists and excellent inpatient nursing care here at Saint Clare’s Health. That’s extremely important with a cancer diagnosis. Our nursing staff is second to none. They listen, and they care,” Dr. Bari added. “But your personal support team – your family and friends in the community – are just as important as our medical team in terms of how well our patients do.”
Saint Clare’s Health offers a wide range of oncology treatment options at the Denville and Dover locations. In addition, the unique nurse navigator program provides an extra layer of personal care for patients as they go through the treatment procedures that can help save their lives. For more information, please call 973-625-6000 or visit www.saintclares.com.