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By Ann McGreal, RN
June is Cancer Immunotherapy Month, shining a spotlight on advancements in immuno-oncology. 2017 ACCC Institute for Clinical Immuno-Oncology Innovator Award winner Oncology Specialists S.C. at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital has been delivering immunotherapy for cancer for more than six years. For highlights on how they’ve developed their program and how “Turning on the Light Switch” helps their providers and patients talk about managing immune-related toxicities, read on.
For more than 30 years the world of oncology nursing and the patients we care for has been bound by the expectations of the known effects of chemotherapy on the human body. While these toxicities can be difficult and, at times, even life threatening, for the most part they are predictable. As experienced oncology nurses, we know that after a certain number of days the patient blood counts will likely drop. Our patients being treated with chemotherapy anticipate that they may experience nausea, diarrhea, bone pain, and other side effects. For the most part, with chemotherapy we can expect a logical start, progression, and end to toxicities.
Immuno-Oncology Brings a Paradigm Shift
However, the new dawn of immuno-oncology and the rapidly increasing use of immunotherapy for cancer have upended not only our approach to supporting oncology patients, but also how we approach the toxicities of treatment.
Our practice, Oncology Specialists at Lutheran Advocate General Hospital, in Park Ridge, Illinois, has been on the cutting edge of using immunotherapy for melanoma treatments from the beginning. We were among the highest accrual sites for the original ipilimumab clinical trials. Then, in 2011, immunotherapy took its first big step into the limelight with the FDA approval of ipilimumab for the treatment of Stage IV melanoma. The demand on our clinic for ipilimumab increased greatly.
Initially, our practice was able to deal with the need to think about symptom management in a different way because we were caring for a small population of patients—all in the melanoma space. However, in 2014, with the dawn of PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors that all began to change. Today, the potential for this class of drug seems unlimited, with more than 500 current studies underway in the U.S., and new indications and approvals occurring on what seems like a daily basis.
Educate. Educate. Educate.
As we implemented immunotherapy in our practice, our nursing team took on the challenge of how best to educate both staff and our patients on the mechanism of action for these new therapies, as well as their potential toxicities.
We quickly learned that peer-to-peer education was the most effective way to help our medical staff develop a better understanding of immunotherapy. We also found that the real challenge lay in accepting that immunotherapy for cancer requires a different way of looking at the total treatment picture. To implement this new treatment paradigm, we needed to better educate our patients so that they had a clear understanding of how immunotherapy differed from traditional chemotherapy and why early reporting of toxicities is so important. This meant we had break through long-held beliefs such as, “everyone gets sick during cancer treatment” and “I should just ‘tough it out’ or they will stop my therapy.” We needed our patients to understand that with immunotherapy just “tough it out” can be a deadly mindset. Patients on immunotherapy need to partner with their providers and report any toxicities early so that their healthcare team can work quickly to resolve the issue.
Flipping the Switch
With this need in mind, we created a set of education tools built around the analogy of the patient’s immune system functioning like a light switch. The immunotherapy treatment turns the switch on. If the treatment starts causing toxicities, the patient’s body cannot turn the switch off by itself. Unless the toxicities are reported, the affected system (the light) will burn out. Today, these education tools and discharge instructions are the backbone of our immunotherapy program.
Next Step: Incorporating into Our EMR
With our staff education and training on managing immune-related toxicities and patient education in place, we looked at processes to ensure cohesive documentation in our EMR so that an on-call physician or covering nurse could easily pick up the treatment thread and assist patients. This not only led to the development of templates but also a standardized treatment plan for immune-related toxicities, including the use of corticosteroids.
At the ACCC 34th National Oncology Conference in October, we’ll be presenting a more in-depth look at how we have developed and grown an immunotherapy program at our practice. We hope you’ll join us in Nashville.
Ann McGreal, RN, is an Oncology Nurse Clinician at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois.
Read more about upcoming ACCC 34th National Oncology Conference here.