Nearly 14 million Americans can call themselves cancer survivors. A positive attitude is key but a lot can be attributed to the advancement of medical care. The Avera Cancer Institute at Avera McKennan has proven to be one of those innovators of quality cancer care.
"I feel like if we didn't laugh through a lot of this it would be a tough situation." Said Eileen Heilman.
Anyone who has met Eileen knows she can find the joy in everything, that includes chemotherapy.
"I can't be out in the sun, no sun tanning anymore, so I can give that up!" Said Heilman.
In January of 2010, Eileen was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer, three and a half years later she's still in the fight for her life.
"Of the three and half years I've probably done chemo for two and half years and right now I'm on a maintenance type thing so we're just hoping to keep enough chemo to continue to work to keep it from growing." Said Heilman.
Being from Watertown, Eileen has made the nearly four hour round trip just another part of the routine. Eileen chooses to get her cancer care in Sioux Falls because the staff has become like family. However in the past, there were some who came to town for a much different reason.
"We were having staff from outlying areas and patients kind of expressing concerns about the inconsistency between what we do here at the Avera Cancer Institute versus what happens in the smaller communities." Said Kris Gaster, the Assistant Vice President of Avera's Outpatient Cancer Clinics.
The Avera Cancer Institute took this as a challenge and decided to up the ante to ensure cancer care was consistent across the region.
"The Rural Chemotherapy Project was establishing guidelines, minimum guidelines based on national standards that we could articulate to the rural sites so that they were aware and then we held webinars with them to go through what exactly these national standards are." Said Gaster.
The project started in October of 2011 and within 9 months the standards in the 45 regional sites were all up to par. Meaning patients like 3rd grade teacher Pam White in Aberdeen get the same care as those in Sioux Falls.
"After 12 treatments and in February I was diagnosed as cancer free!" Said White.
Pam was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer but fought back hard with newly approved cancer drugs. Throughout her journey Pam was able to stay right where the positive support could easily find and encourage her.
"My school is literally across the street from here, I can see my kids out the window playing on the playground at recess and the clinic is a mile from our home and knowing I'm getting this excellent care and not having to travel during the winter months during the snow it was such a gift to be able to come here." Said White.
For every patient like Pam there are several like Eileen still waiting for a clean bill of health. But now thanks to the success of the project, Eileen frequently splits up her treatments and saves plenty of time and gas.
"I come day one for the first treatment and the checkup and blood work down here with Dr. Rojas and then he is able to give the orders to Brown Clinic for the other two and I would not see him but that's worked out well." Said Heilman.
Eileen says her faith and family have carried her through these very difficult and draining years of treatment. There's probably very few people who have an attitude like Eileen but she's the first to tell you, it's because of everyone who has dedicated their lives to treating and ending cancer.
"I can't say enough for the support, couldn't do it without them." Said Heilman.
Because of the Rural Chemotherapy Project, the Avera Cancer Institute at Avera McKennan was give the Award for Innovation by the Association of Community Cancer Centers. They are the only hospital in the Midwest to receive the award. For more information just call 877-AT-AVERA.