Today, cancer is more treatable and survivable than ever, thanks to advances in technology and medical procedures. The key is making sure that this advanced care gets to all the patients who need it.

It starts with catching cancer as early as possible, a big care gap in the U.S. Whether it’s from lack of awareness or access challenges, not enough Americans are getting the regular cancer screenings that could save their lives. In 2020, that meant perhaps 67,000 cases of cancer that weren’t diagnosed properly or on time.

Helping people understand the importance of screening is one of the major goals of Good Samaritan Hospital’s oncology program, said Dr. Elwyn Cabebe, Medical Director of Oncology at the hospital.

“We have a great screening program for all kinds of cancers, such as 3D mammography for breast cancers, and we do aggressive screening for the entire community,” he said. “We want to demystify some of the myths around screening, like worries over the radiation levels in mammograms. And we also want to help people in different communities understand their different cancer risks depending on their genetic background.”

Screening is more important than ever because cancer patients today often have a much better chance of a cure than they did just 15 years ago. The breadth of available medications, new surgical techniques represent “an evolution” in cancer treatment that allows care teams to target the cancer more precisely. That makes treatments more effective – and easier for the patient, said Dr. Cabebe.

Cancer care today also involves a team of specialists, not only physicians and nurses, but experts in radiology, pathology, and palliative care. The increased knowledge about different cancers also means more difficult cases are treatable today. That’s one reason Good Samaritan Hospital has created a “tumor board” for breast cancer that brings experts from across disciplines together every two weeks to discuss complicated cases including the option for enrolling some patients in clinical trials for the latest therapies.

That commitment to quality has helped Good Samaritan Hospital earn accolades as “Best Comprehensive Breast Care” and “Best Mammogram Imaging Center” from the Women's Choice Awards and recognition by the American College of Radiology as a designated Breast Imaging Center of Excellence and as an Accredited Breast Center by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers.

Having so many options also means that people may need help navigating their cancer care journey. That’s the job of Dana Stevens, a registered nurse and nurse navigator at the hospital – and a breast cancer survivor.

“The emotional effect of being diagnosed with cancer, not knowing what the treatment plan is going to look like, creates a big fear of the unknown for patients in the beginning,” she said. “My role as a nurse navigator is to help those patients know what’s next and help them overcome barriers – anything from transportation to financial – to support them in their diagnosis and treatment.”

Her decision to become a nurse navigator stems from her own experience with breast cancer a decade ago. There were no navigators then, and finding her way through the system was daunting, despite her nurse training. So, she tries to smooth that path for patients today – and for their family members who could also be at risk, looking at a patient’s family history to see if screening is appropriate for other members of their family.

“We only knew about a couple of genetic markers for breast cancer a decade ago,” said Dr. Cabebe. “Now there are dozens we know about and can screen for.”

Education about these changes has become part of the hospital’s community outreach program, that includes information on “risk assessment, genetic assessment, new imaging guidelines, and what our breast care center is able to do,” Stevens said.

Traditional in-person outreach has been more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the in-person health fairs and community meetings that were routine two years ago have been curtailed. Education efforts have shifted to online and social media, as well as ongoing partnerships with community and national cancer organizations.

But in person or virtual, the focus is the same: providing patient-focused care that helps to close the care gap.

“For me, every patient is an individual with a cancer diagnosis, and I really focus on that individual, what they need and how I can help them,” Stevens said. “And I have high hopes for them, with our cancer treatments getting better and better all the time.”