When Lisa Newell was pregnant with her third son, a complication with her placenta landed her on bedrest for a month. After she gave birth, doctors assumed that the pain she felt in her sternum and ribs was related to her lying in bed for the last month of her pregnancy. Massage made the pain worse. A chiropractor recommended X-rays, which led to an MRI, which led to an unexpected diagnosis five months after her child was born: Newell, now a mom of three, had stage 4 breast cancer. “A lot of people asked me how I managed with three boys at home,” says Newell, whose other sons were 2 and 10 at the time. “Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without them. They kept me grounded and focused on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do.” That was 2006. For the 13 years since, she has been driving to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance from her home in North Bend for treatment. The commute is not ideal – traffic in the Seattle area is notoriously bad – but Newell trusts her doctor, Dr. Jennifer Specht, a breast medical oncologist. “She is so caring and understanding,” says Newell. “Her demeanor is straight but reassuring. No question is too silly to ask her.” Dr. Specht feels similarly connected to Newell. In 2016, Dr. Specht was a guest of honor at Newell’s 50th birthday party. “Getting to her 50th was a big deal,” says Specht. “She wasn’t sure if she’d see her son start kindergarten, and now he’s in middle school.”
Dr. Specht and some of Newell’s favorite infusion nurses attended the party, spending their time off celebrating a woman whom Dr. Specht calls “inspirational.” “She’s lived with stage 4 breast cancer longer than many women do and you wouldn’t know it by looking at her or talking with her,” says Dr. Specht. “She manages to keep the cancer in its place. It’s just part of her life.” After so many years under the care of Dr. Specht, Newell says she “can’t imagine doing this without her.” So a few months ago, when Dr. Specht told Newell that SCCA was opening a clinic in Issaquah, much closer to her home, Newell almost rejected the idea of going there out of hand. The new clinic is staffed by Dr. Jason Lukas, a medical oncologist and hematologist who specializes in immunotherapy and cancer vaccines. A model of ‘shared care’ Dr. Lukas, who is new to SCCA, is building up his practice on the Eastside. But he understands that long-time SCCA patients may be hesitant to switch their care from a doctor they’ve been seeing for years. “I think it’s a lot to ask a patient to leave the comfort of their care just so things can be more convenient,” says Dr. Lukas. “That’s not who we are as an organization.” He and Dr. Specht spoke about Newell and how best to serve her needs as a patient. They decided that Newell could come to the new clinic for the chemotherapy infusions she receives every three weeks. But the management of her care will remain in the hands of Dr. Specht – a model that Dr. Lukas refers to as “shared care.” Newell was overjoyed. She was the first patient at the new clinic, stepping through the door on April 2 for her first infusion. Instead of the hour-long drive to SCCA’s main South Lake Union clinic in Seattle, it took her just 15 minutes to reach the Issaquah clinic. She joked with Dr. Lukas that she didn't even have enough time to finish her coffee. Plus, there was an extra perk, adds Newell: “There was no parking garage to deal with!” Newell has been so pleased with the convenience factor that she posted on SCCA’s Facebook page to help reassure other patients considering the Eastside clinic for their own care. She wrote: “Yesterday I met with Dr. Lukas and the staff at the Issaquah SCCA. Today I had my monthly infusion here. I can tell you that the care and compassion that I received today was nothing short of what I have received for the past 13 years at SCCA.” “I know how scary it can be to change something that’s working, which is why I decided to post something to make others feel more comfortable,” she says.
Focusing on quality of life Dr. Lukas, a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan in 2011-2012, wants potential patients to feel confident that the care at the Issaquah clinic is on par with care at the main campus. He is accepting new patients but also recognizes the importance of supplementing and supporting care for existing patients who have established their treatment plans in Seattle. “What I bring to the table is another set of eyes, a more generalist spirit,” says Dr. Lukas. “With the specialists taking care of the disease, I can focus more on quality-of-life issues.” When seeing Newell before her infusion, for example, he asked a wide range of questions about everything from how she was doing emotionally to managing her diarrhea. “I use my generalist knowledge and their specialist knowledge to enhance the patient experience,” says Dr. Lukas. “They get the South Lake Union treatment in all its facets, close to home.” The Issaquah clinic offers a wide range of cancer care, including chemotherapy and most medications, which are shipped from the South Lake Union clinic. One component that’s missing is clinical trials, which offer patients the opportunity to enroll in research studies to help advance patient care. Dr. Lukas is exploring the possibility of a “community model” -- expanding a subset of clinical trials to Issaquah – which would allow patients to receive even more of their care on the Eastside. “My ultimate goal is that all the trials we do in South Lake Union, we would also do in Issaquah,” he says. Meanwhile, Newell continues to see Dr. Specht several times a year. Back home in North Bend, Newell offers herself up as a font of knowledge for newly diagnosed patients. “I always give people two bits of advice: 1) Use the Miralax. It really does help! and 2) You have to be comfortable with the doctor caring for you.”