Improving cancer survivorship throughout Hawaiʻi and the Pacific

June 25, 2021

Investigators at the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center have conducted various clinical trials with the hope of positively impacting survivorship among those diagnosed with cancer. These studies seek to decrease cancer mortality through improving the treatments and care of cancer patients and the quality of life for cancer survivors.

Grandkids spending time with grandfatherJune is National Cancer Survivor Month, a time to celebrate those who are living with and have fought through their cancer diagnoses. More than 16.9 million people in the U.S. are cancer survivors. Every individual’s survivorship story is unique, as many face challenges before, during, and after treatment. Research on survivorship helps to anticipate, recognize, prevent and/or manage these challenges.

Positively impacting survivorship during treatment

According to the National Cancer Institute, an individual is considered a cancer survivor from the time they are diagnosed with the disease. Cancer patients are an important population and they play a significant role in survivorship research. To improve the care of cancer patients in Hawaiʻi’s rural areas, UH Cancer Center Junior Researcher Izumi Okado, PhD, is conducting a study on cancer care coordination on Kauaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island.

Studies show that cancer patients in rural areas have higher mortality rates than those residing in urban areas. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with advanced-stage cancers, have coexisting but unrelated disease conditions, and experience delays in receiving diagnoses and treatments. Okado’s study seeks to improve the organization and management of cancer patients’ health care services and care delivery in rural and medically-underserved areas in our community.

“We hope that the results from this study will inform potential strategies to improve care coordination in rural areas, particularly in Hawaiʻi’s neighbor islands,” said Okado. “Reducing delays in diagnosis and treatment may significantly improve cancer survivorship.”

Clinical trials, which are studies that provide cancer patients with the most innovative treatments and highest quality of care, have also been instrumental in improving survivorship around the world. In Hawaiʻi, over 16,000 patients have been enrolled onto cancer clinical trials since 2016. These studies have caused the mortality rate of cancer to fall, and the number of cancer survivors to increase.

“In 2016, there were over 62,000 cancer survivors in Hawaiʻi–-a number that has been steadily increasing since then. The UH Cancer Center is conducting over 70 clinical trials focused on cancer survivorship as it pertains to survival and treatment-related side effects, both physical and psychosocial,” said Jonathan Cho, MD, UH Cancer Center Clinical Trials Office medical director. “Clinical trials play an important role on how we will meet the present and future needs of the rapidly growing cancer survivor population.”

Positively impacting survivorship after treatment

A clinician speaking with a cancer patientIt is not uncommon for cancer survivors to experience challenges even after they receive treatment. These can include economic burdens due to medical expenses, lost wages and reduced productivity, survivor’s guilt, the fear of recurrence, feeling down, challenges moving and exercising in the way they did before treatment, and other health problems. To help in overcoming these challenges, UH Cancer Center researchers have teamed up with groups of researchers, clinicians, and teachers to conduct numerous studies to research the positive effects of social-support activities on cancer survivors’ mental and physical well-being.

UH Cancer Center Researchers Erin Bantum, PhD, and Lenora Loo, PhD, led two intervention studies of hula for breast and gynecologic cancer survivors. The researchers found that hula could help to increase physical activity for breast cancer survivors, improve quality of life, increase vigor, and decrease levels of circulating cytokines (a type of protein), associated with obesity and inflammation. The psychosocial benefits of the hula group activities are so positive that many of the original hula study participants continue to meet regularly, even years after the conclusion of the study.

“The cancer journey continues after treatment and even during long-term survivorship. We study survivorship to improve the well-being of those who have and had cancer–-regardless of where they are in their journey,” said Bantum. “Cancer survivors often experience both physical and mental challenges, in addition to identifying benefits as a result of diagnosis and treatment. We hope that our studies will help to identify ways to help make the most out of the experience with cancer.”

The UH Cancer Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The center has made seminal discoveries in the areas of cancer biology, epidemiology, cancer prevention and treatment, and contributed to the advanced health care for thousands of cancer patients to gain access to the most innovative and latest clinical trials at home in Hawaiʻi.

Other studies on survivorship:

UH Cancer Center researcher studies social support activities for cancer survivors

Educational curriculum seeks to improve quality of life for cancer patients and caregivers

UH Cancer Center study highlights importance of family caregivers