MIAMI CANCER INSTITUTE Photo Credit: By Miami Cancer Institute

Returning to Screening in a Pandemic Context
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the spectrum of cancer care, resulting in decreases and delays in identifying new cancers, delivering treatment and even halting clinical trials to prioritize urgent needs and reduce the risk of infection in healthcare settings. One effect of this has been a large drop in cancer screening. In such a critical context, Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida has had to adjust in order to ensure that patients continue to receive essential attention.

"In a November 2020 report, The Journal of Clinical Oncology quantified year-over-year decreases in different types of cancer screenings and the data was alarming," says Michael Zinner, M.D., CEO and executive medical director of Miami Cancer Institute. These problems, if unmitigated, will increase cancer morbidity and mortality for years to come.

Miami Cancer Institute took extreme precautions in order to resume screening tests. "We're committed to community outreach and are pairing with local organizations to conduct screenings," Dr. Zinner says. "There are obviously areas of particular need within our community, we have been reaching out to these medically underserved populations with the goal of providing better access to the lifesaving technology and expertise available here."

With 6,000 new cancer patients every year since they opened five years ago, the institute has gone from being virtually unknown to becoming the third largest cancer center by volume of patients in the state of Florida. As the only member of The Memorial Sloan Kettering alliance in Florida, they are aligned with the leading academic cancer center's standards and have also developed research relationships with them. This association enables them to develop technology in new areas of cancer care making Miami Cancer Institute a leading expert in the development of cellular cancer therapies by way of world-class cancer experts, multidisciplinary patient care, cutting-edge technology and innovative treatments.

Outsmarting Cancer with Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is one of Miami Cancer Institute's major development areas. It's an advanced cancer treatment that helps boost your body's immune system to fight cancer.The institute's Clinical Research Program is designed to focus on breakthrough research, discoveries and therapies. With a team of approximately 95 people and 6 major investigators, they are concentrated on immunotherapy as the future of cancer care.

As clinical trials move forward and studies continue, physician scientists are gaining more insight into which patients respond better to immunotherapy versus chemotherapy. Guenther Koehne, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director and chief of Blood and Marrow Transplantation at Miami Cancer Institute expressed: "This is not one size fits all care. Every day we are learning new facts about how to choose and integrate the best medications and procedures for the specific individual. And we are finding new treatments for those with extremely complicated cases. This improves outcomes and gives us hope."

Technology has also been a great disrupter for healthcare, and it will play an increasingly important role in clinical trials."Perhaps the biggest change has to do with how we recruit, monitor and communicate with patients in our trials. As a clinical investigator, you want to be able to keep a close eye on your patients to make sure they're not experiencing any adverse effects. But with COVID-19, we also want to eliminate any unnecessary face-to-face appointments." Physicians and patients both are growing much more comfortable with telemedicine, said Manmeet Ahluwalia, M.D., deputy director, chief scientific officer and chief of solid tumor medical oncology at Miami Cancer Institute.

"Healing with Arts"

Despite the substantial progress made in the early detection and treatment of multiple types of cancer, it's known that psychosocial issues affect patients in all stages of the disease. Emotional response can influence both morbidity and mortality. The increased emphasis on psychosocial oncology in recent years has led to more research, education, and training programs as more professionals appreciate the importance of this aspect of care.

That is why a patient support system is such an important part of cancer treatment. "Building resilience during a cancer patient's journey is pivotal in terms of improving their outcomes," says M. Beatriz Currier, M.D., medical director of the Cancer Patient Support Center and chief of psychosocial oncology at Miami Cancer Institute. Bringing the arts to Miami Cancer Institute not only soothes patients and reduces their stress, Dr. Currier says, it also improves the wellbeing of their caregivers and the hospital staff.

Cancer patient support services offered at Miami Cancer Institute include massage therapy, counseling, support groups and, now, art and music. According to Dr. Currier, these artistic interventions can help diminish anxiety and depression in patients and improve their overall wellbeing. Dr. Currier and her team are studying the impact the arts are having on patients' clinical outcomes.

Strength comes from teamwork and that's why Miami Cancer Institute and Lynn Cancer Institute, partners in Baptist Health Cancer Care, are integrating their programs to become the largest provider of cancer services in South Florida.