Rick Bowmer  /  AP
Cancer patient Tam Tran, 73, receives treatment from Dr. Robert Rankin near the Convention Center in New Orleans on Sept. 8. Many cancer patients who were forced to evacuate in the hurricanes have lost access to life-saving medication, specialized treatment and participation in clinical trials.
Special to msnbc.com
updated 9/23/2005 3:03:52 PM ET 2005-09-23T19:03:52

It may sound absurd, but the thousands of cancer patients currently seeking shelter from Hurricane Rita should give thanks to her predecessor, Katrina.

Within hours of the hurricane striking, the cancer community — medical professionals, patients and government officials — began posting links on multiple Web sites and opened phone lines to help cancer patients find a variety of resources. Help included information on temporary lodging, replacement medication, message boards for patients and doctors seeking each other, and instructions for participants in life-saving clinical trials disrupted by Katrina.

Angela Guzman, a breast cancer survivor fleeing to Memphis, Tenn., from Louisiana, called the local American Cancer Society on her way to a Red Cross shelter. When she got there, she was met by two ACS staffers who put her in contact with a Memphis physician. The doctor immediately replaced her missing prescription for tamoxifen, a drug she takes every day.

And John Jackson, 82, is grateful to an Internet message board. A New Orleans resident forced to evacuate ahead of Katrina, Jackson had recently begun a new chemotherapy drug and arrived in Georgia dehydrated with a bad case of diarrhea. In addition, his oncologist was out of the country as the storm approached.

When his wife, Lorre Lei Jackson, a breast cancer survivor and activist, saw her husband suffering despite emergency care in an Atlanta hospital, she called her daughter, Ashley Spencer, in Alexandria, Va. Jackson asked her daughter to contact the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the professional association for doctors who treat cancer. She hoped that ASCO would be able to track down Dr. Oliver Sartor, Jackson’s oncologist at Louisiana State University, who had been heading home from a Paris oncology meeting as the storm hit.

Spencer, who lives around the corner from the Society’s headquarters, actually walked over and was helped by a staff member her mother knew who posted a message for Sartor on the ASCO messaging site. Sartor read the message, which included the Jacksons’ cell phone number, caught up with the couple and consulted with the oncologist in Kentucky where the Jacksons were then staying.

Web sites and phone lines
Leaders in the field of cancer care say the scope of the disaster drove their efforts. "Never before has there been a situation where so many cancer patients and their families have been affected by a natural disaster of this magnitude. We want to be prepared to offer as much help and hope as possible," said Mike Dany, CEO of the American Cancer Society's High Plains Division, which includes Texas. Dany's division is now compiling information for patients fleeing Hurricane Rita.

Cancer resources offered by the various medical groups include:

  • A 24-hour telephone medical consultation service (800-887-2842) provided by the National Institutes of Health, for both health care professionals and patients. Doctors and patients or family members can use this line to ask for medical advice and to find out about continuing clinical trial treatment interrupted by the hurricanes.
  • Cancer treatment referral information available from the National Cancer Information Service (800-422-6237), which has Spanish and English operators available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST, and recorded information 24 hours a day. Operators have lists of oncologists around the country available to help displaced patients, and they also serve as a clearinghouse for oncologists whose patients have been evacuated. Patients can leave their contact information and medical details in order to assist physicians taking on their cases.
  • The National Cancer Institute's information portal for cancer patients needing assistance in the wake of the hurricanes: www.cancer.gov/Katrina
  • Live Help, a technology often used by Internet shopping sites that lets patients or doctors instant message operators and get online information in real time. Go to www.cancer.gov/katrina and click on "live help." Service is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST.
  • ASCO Message Board, a service provided by ASCO to connect patients and physicians: www.asco.org/ac/1,1003,_12-003050,00.asp

Uprooted from clinical trials
Among the most frightening aspects of evacuation for patients can be leaving a clinical trial, in which a patient is being treated with an experimental drug that may not be available anywhere else.

This situation has become a priority for the NIH, says its director Elias Zerhouni, and when possible, patients are being referred to medical centers close to them that offer similar treatment, or permission is being sought to use a drug not normally used at that center.

Resources for patients who've lost access to their clinical trial include a search form to help find alternative locations. The form is available on the NCI's Web site at: http://www.cancer.gov/Search/SearchClinicalTrialsAdvancedk.aspx

There is also a dedicated phone line (301-496 5725), which is answered Monday through Friday between 8:30 a.m.and 5 p.m. EST, to help connect patients with clinical trials. Information for patients who were participating in clinical trials at Tulane University Medical Center is available at: http://www.cancer.gov/katrina/Clinical-Trials-Tulane-Cancer-Center

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While providing medical assistance is generally the only service many of these organizations offer, the hardship posed by Katrina and the new evacuation in anticipation of Rita is pushing organizations to provide lodging and food services as well. The American Cancer Society Web site has links to information on physicians, hospitals, lodging, meals and medication in the eight states where most Katrina victims evacuated. More states will be added if necessary. Click on www.cancer.org/docroot/COM/COM_2005_Katrina_Web_Resources.asp

To find help in specific states, click on the "expanded list" on the Katrina Resource home page for local services that may be able to provide assistance.

Cancer patients, even those without any emergency needs, should get a copy of the American Cancer Society’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list for cancer patients and family members impacted by the hurricanes. The form can be downloaded at: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/HOME/content/PFF_2_Coping_With_Cancer_After_Katrina_FAQ.asp or call the Society at 800-ACS-2345. Questions and answers include hygiene suggestions to help prevent infection, and what to tell physicians who are treating you for the first time. The Society urges patients to let staff at shelters know that you are a cancer patient so they can help locate medical support if necessary and find replacement supplies of medicines.

Dr. Mark Heaney, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, says patients should not worry if they will be off their chemotherapy schedule for a few days, but advises them to contact their doctor or a back-up oncologist as soon as possible to let them know what medications they take and when they last had treatment.

Cancer patients do need to be concerned if they begin running a fever, says Heaney, since it could mean they have an infection. Infections can be life-threatening to a cancer patient because the body's immune system is often weakened.

A survey of cancer resources early Friday found no specific reference to Hurricane Rita, but NCI officials say they’re ready for a new wave of patients needing assistance.

"We don't care which hurricane a cancer patient is seeking shelter from,’’ says an NCI spokesperson. "We just want to help.’’

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