Cancer as a Full-Contact Sport

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso, NP

October 06, 2022

John worked as a handyman and lived on a small sailboat in a marina. When he was diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer at age 48, he quickly fell through the cracks. He failed to show to appointments and took oral anticancer treatments, but just sporadically. He had Medicaid, so insurance wasn't the issue. It was everything else.

John was behind on his slip fees; he hadn't been able to work for some time because of his progressive weakness and pain. He was chronically in danger of getting kicked out of his makeshift home aboard the boat. He had no reliable transportation to the clinic and so he didn't come to appointments regularly. The specialty pharmacy refused to deliver his expensive oral chemotherapy to his address at the marina. He went days without eating full meals because he was too weak to cook for himself. Plus, he was estranged from his family who were unaware of his illness.

His oncologist was overwhelmed trying to take care of him. He had a reasonable chance of achieving disease control on first-line oral therapy, but his problems seemed to hinder these chances at every turn. She was distraught — what could she do?

Enter the team approach. John's oncologist reached out to our palliative care program for help. We recognized that this was a job too big for us alone so we connected John with the Extensivist Medicine program at UCLA Health, a high-intensity primary care program led by a physician specializing in primary care for high-risk individuals. The program provides wraparound outpatient services for chronically and seriously ill patients, like John, who are at risk for falling through the cracks. John went from receiving very little support to now having an entire team of caring professionals focused on helping him achieve his best possible outcome despite the seriousness of his disease.

He now had the support of a high-functioning team with clearly defined roles. Social work connected him with housing, food, and transportation resources. A nurse called him every day to check in and make sure he was taking medications and reminded him about his upcoming appointments. Case management helped him get needed equipment, such as grab bars and a walker.

As his palliative care nurse practitioner, I counseled him on understanding his prognosis and planning ahead for medical emergencies. Our psycho-oncology clinicians helped John reconcile with his family, who were more than willing to take him in once they realized how ill he was. Once these social factors were addressed, John could more easily stay current with his oral chemotherapy, giving him the best chance possible to achieve a robust treatment response that could buy him more time.

And, John did get that time — he got 6 months of improved quality of life, during which he reconnected with his family, including his children, and rebuilt these important relationships. Eventually treatment failed him. His disease, already widely metastatic, became more active and painful. He accepted hospice care at his sister's house and we transitioned him from our team to the hospice team. He died peacefully surrounded by family.

Interprofessional Teamwork Is Fundamental to Treat "Total Pain"

None of this would have been possible without the work of high-functioning teams. It is a commonly held belief that interprofessional teamwork is fundamental to the care of patients and families living with serious illness. But why? How did this idea come about? And what evidence is there to support teamwork?

Dame Cicely Saunders, who founded the modern hospice movement in mid-20th century England, embodied the interdisciplinary team by working first as a nurse, then a social worker, and finally as a physician. She wrote about patients' "total pain," the crisis of physical, spiritual, social, and emotional distress that many people have at the end of life. She understood that no single health care discipline was adequate to the task of addressing each of these domains equally well.

Thus, hospice became synonymous with care provided by a quartet of specialists — physicians, nurses, social workers, and chaplains. Nowadays, there are other specialists that are added to the mix — home health aides, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, music and pet therapists, and so on.

But in medicine, like all areas of science, convention and tradition only go so far. What evidence is there to support the work of an interdisciplinary team in managing the distress of patients and families living with advanced illnesses? It turns out that there is good evidence to support the use of high-functioning interdisciplinary teams in the care of the seriously ill. Palliative care is associated with improved patient outcomes, including improvements in symptom control, quality of life, and end of life care, when it is delivered by an interdisciplinary team rather than by a solo practitioner.

You may think that teamwork is most useful for patients like John who have seemingly intractable social barriers. But it is also true that for even patients with many more social advantages teamwork improves quality of life. I got to see this up close recently in my own life.

Teamwork Improves Quality of Life

My father recently passed away after a 9-month battle with advanced cancer. He had every advantage possible — financial stability, high health literacy, an incredibly devoted spouse who happens to be an RN, good insurance, and access to top-notch medical care. Yet, even he benefited from a team approach. It started small, with the oncologist and oncology NP providing excellent, patient-centered care.

Then it grew to include myself as the daughter/palliative care nurse practitioner who made recommendations for treating his nausea and ensured that his advance directive was completed and uploaded to his chart. When my dad needed physical therapy, the home health agency sent a wonderful physical therapist, who brought all sorts of equipment that kept him more functional than he would have been otherwise. Other family members helped out — my sisters helped connect my dad with a priest who came to the home to provide spiritual care, which was crucial to ensuring that he was at peace. And, in his final days, my dad had the hospice team to help manage his symptoms and his family members to provide hands-on care.

Cancer, as one of my patients once remarked to me, is a "full-contact sport." Living with advanced cancer touches nearly every aspect of a person's life. The complexity of cancer care has long necessitated a team approach to planning cancer treatment — known as a tumor board — with medical oncology, radiation oncology, surgery, and pathology all weighing in. It makes sense that patients and their families would also need a team of clinicians representing different specialty areas to assist with the wide array of physical, psychosocial, practical, and spiritual concerns that arise throughout the cancer disease trajectory.

Ms. D'Ambruoso is a hospice and palliative care nurse practitioner for UCLA Health Cancer Care, Santa Monica, Calif.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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