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UVM tests new care plan to give cancer patients better quality of life

Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 6:27 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 4, 2021 at 8:26 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The University of Vermont is leading a study that could give up to three-quarters of chemo patients a better quality of life.

A neurologist working at the Larner College of Medicine has received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute to treat a common side effect of chemotherapy-- nerve damage.

Last February, Sandra Benoit was diagnosed with breast cancer.

By March, she started her first round of chemotherapy at the UVM Medical Center.

“I think that first round I was so sick that I don’t even remember three days of my life,” Benoit said. “It was everything. My bones hurt, the weakness, I lost all my sense of taste and smell. It wreaked havoc on my body.”

She completed a round of chemo every three weeks for three months. But once she won that battle, another lay ahead.

“My toes, I couldn’t feel my toes,” she said.

A painful and debilitating complication called chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy that manifests in numbness, tingling, or pain in the hands and feet.

Benoit says she wasn’t willing to sit on her heels to get her life back. So, her oncologist recommended she see a neurologist.

“And I found Dr. Kolb,” she said.

Thanks to Dr. Noah Kolb’s treatment plan, Benoit is walking her dog and strolling through downtown Burlington again.

It’s stories like Benoit’s that’s inspired Kolb to help patients suffering from these side effects get instant attention. Now, his team is testing technology that integrates oncological and neurological treatment into one streamlined system.

“This study is unique in that we try to reach out to people really in their time of need. Their symptoms are worst usually right when they finish chemo or immediately afterward, and that’s a period of time when patients aren’t interacting with doctors and oncologists as frequently as they were during their chemo,” said Kolb, a neurologist at the UVM Medical Center and associate professor at the UVM Larner College of Medicine.

Kolb says this follow-up program closes that gap.

Nurse practitioners monitor cancer patients recovering from chemo. If the patient reports moderate to severe symptoms, they get a telehealth appointment and treatment plan that same day.

In other words, it’s real-time intervention rather than a patient waiting for the pain to arise then months to see an oncologist, who will then refer them to a neurologist.

“Oncologists do a fantastic job treating cancer, but much in the way that as a neurologist I couldn’t prescribe chemotherapy, their expertise isn’t in prescribing the drugs and the therapies used to treat the side-effects from chemotherapy,” Kolb explained.

A total of 420 patients are invited to enroll in the study as early as January at UVM and universities in Utah and Virginia.

Using the more than $6 million grant, Kolb’s team will hire the dozens of nurse practitioners providing remote care to all the patients from right here in Vermont.

Kolb says the key component of this new care model is convenience.

“This is a problem that can be managed fairly simply over telehealth,” he said.

Meaning people in rural communities can have access to this kind of care, too.

So Kolb hopes this clinical trial and, ultimately, the program will improve cancer patients’ lives across the country.

Call 802-656-8990 for more information.

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