What Happens If I Am Diagnosed With Cancer?

A cancer diagnosis can be stressful and life-altering. Radiation oncologists Kevin McMullen, MD, and John Cox, MD at the Columbus Regional Health Cancer Center answer questions you may have ranging from referrals to radiation treatment.


What happens when you receive a diagnosis? Do you have to wait to get a referral? 

A diagnosis can bring about a rush of anxiety and uncertainty and we understand that many people are eager to learn as much as possible about their diagnosis and potential treatment options as soon as possible. When someone receives a diagnosis of cancer, he or she is welcome to contact the Cancer Center at Columbus Regional Health directly.

Patients do not need a formal physician referral to seek a consult from our internationally-recognized cancer experts at the Columbus Regional Health Cancer Center. However, we certainly respect and value the relationship patients have with their primary care physician, surgeon or specialist and we strive to maintain that relationship throughout the patient’s treatment at the Cancer Center. The multidisciplinary approach to cancer care is what ensures our patients receive the most comprehensive and cutting-edge patient-centered care possible.

Cancer Center oncologist Kevin McMullen, MD, discusses the advanced cancer treatment options available at Columbus Regional Health and the importance these tools play in survivorship. "From the time the patient first walks in the door, we need to be thinking about that patient as a cancer survivor," he said, "and we need to be thinking about the footprint of the therapy we leave behind."


How do I know if I'll have to have radiation? 

Each patient’s treatment plan is highly individualized to his or her personal circumstance. The decision regarding radiation will be addressed during your consultation with a radiation oncologist. Some patients diagnosed with cancer will clearly not need radiation and therefore may not be referred for consultation; however, even those patients are still generally discussed among the multidisciplinary team at CRH comprised of oncologists, pharmacists, physicists, dosimetrists, surgeons, nurses, social workers and the entire cancer management team.


I know people who have undergone radiation in years past. How has radiation treatment changed over the years? 

In short, techniques and level of care are highly advanced and improved. The quality of imaging capabilities with today’s radiation therapy technology is, without question, the biggest game changer. Because of the highly advanced imaging technology we offer in our cancer center, we are able to locate the tumor and develop a dose that is mapped and treated to exact dimensions of the tumor. This helps keep healthy organs away from risk and reduces the overall footprint created by the radiation treatment. We also are using the most advanced delivery techniques available to lessen the chance of serious skin problems or tissue side-effects.


What can I expect with my first treatment? 

The first radiation treatment with us should be an uneventful, smooth process. Of course, we understand how daunting radiation therapy must seem, and many of our patients are anxious going into their first treatment. Patients can expect to be greeted by a radiation therapist who will take them step-by-step through the entire process, explaining each course of action prior to and during the treatment. The imaging process is what generally takes the majority of the treatment time each day, with the delivery of the radiation dose typically taking just a few minutes. Of course, those factors of timing depend on each patient’s individual circumstance and plan. Each radiation room is designed with warm, comfortable lighting and décor. Each patient may choose the type of music played during their treatment as well.

Cheryl Kenyon knows first-hand how important it is to get an annual mammogram. Despite not showing any symptoms, her mammogram showed a mass that was cancerous. Read "Healthy and Thriving: Cheryl's Story" on the CRH Healthy Tomorrow blog.


What happens if I have to have more than one round of radiation? 

A typical course of radiation ranges from four to nine weeks of daily treatments with treatments administered five days per week. A limited number of patients can be treated with special procedures that are five treatment sessions or less. Your physician will advise you of all the different options in your case.

In the event a patient requires radiation treatment a second time, for a second cancer or a subsequent cancer recurrence, your physicians will determine if the location of treatment is different than the first course of radiation. If the location of the second cancer is different, then a second course of radiation is generally safe and not associated with an increased  risk. If treatment must be administered in the same location a second time, patients can rest assured that at our cancer center they are in the hands of highly skilled physicians with many years of experience delivering these types of retreatments using the most advanced special procedures.


What type(s) of equipment are used?

At Columbus Regional Health we have the most state-of-the-art delivery equipment that is overseen by highly skilled physicians who are experienced in the delivery of the most advanced procedures. The team at CRH is experienced and well-versed in designing the most complex and comprehensive treatments possible for any scenario for our patients. We are also the only cancer center in the state offering HDR (High dose rate) Brachytherapy for treatment of skin cancer. This option allows patients to avoid potentially disfiguring surgery to remove those types of cancer cells. Additionally, we offer HDR Brachytherapy procedures to reduce the treatment footprint and improve cancer outcomes for prostate, breast and gynecologic cancers.

For patients who are not candidates for, or who would prefer a non-surgical cancer treatment option, we also offer highly precise stereotactic radiosurgery of brain, liver, lung, spine tumors and other sites that benefit from this type of laser-like precision. The CRH Cancer Center is also one of only three sites in the state offering breast cancer treatment in a special breast positioning device that administers the radiation with the lowest risk possible of exposure to vital organs surrounding the breast tissue, such as the heart and lungs.

Jan Matchette, Columbus resident and longtime high school cross country coach, shares her experience about going through breast cancer treatment with the Breast Health Center at Columbus Regional Health.


 What kinds of side effects should I expect? 

Potential side effects of the treatment are always discussed in great detail during your initial consult with your physician. The vast majority of patients have minimal side effects with the advanced techniques available at CRH. Our multidisciplinary approach also affords our patients access to a team of social workers, nutritionists and others that can provide patients with the tips and tools they need to keep their bodies and minds in the best shape possible during treatment, which also helps minimize potential side effects. Severe and/or life-threatening side effects are nearly unheard of with this team approach and the guidance of highly skilled physicians.


How do chemotherapy and radiation work together for treatment

Some cancers require the use of chemotherapy either before and/or during radiation treatment. In most cases, the purpose of chemotherapy during radiation is to sensitize the tumor tissues to make the radiation more effective. In such cases, your care will be skillfully managed by our chemotherapy and radiation teams. The type of chemotherapy that will be used in your combined treatment course would be determined during your encounter with the medical oncology specialist.


I've done research online and talked with others who have undergone treatment. Can I take what information I've gathered to my physician? Will he or she be offended? How do I talk about what I've learned and heard? 

Our physicians always encourage their patients to do as much research as they feel comfortable. Being as informed as possible will ensure that patients and caregivers will be prepared to ask all the questions that will settle any concerns they have and ensure that your physician is able to better explain all the issues related to your care. It certainly does not offend us when our patients bring in information or questions they’ve gathered from friends, family or personal research. As oncologists we are partners in the patient’s care. Our focus is care that incorporates the patient, their needs and personal wishes, as well as input from family members. Patients who are invested in their care and eager to learn as much as they can about their individual circumstance make the overall experience more valuable to all.

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