Giving to Make a Difference

An Alumna Donation and Corporate Gift Support the Effort to Identify Distress in Cancer Patients
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Illustration representing a person in distress

There are myriad reasons people choose to give. For some, giving is inspired by appreciation, faith, or support for a like-minded mission. For Sally Kline, MBA ’87, growing up she learned that giving was just the right thing to do.

“None of us are an island” she says. “We are all dependent on each other. Some people have more money to give and some have more love to give. We have to look out for each other.”

Kline has a strong connection to the George Washington University (GW) as a graduate of the business school. Before her, Kline’s grandmother attended GW in the 1920s and her grandfather held a law degree from the university. Since earning her MBA, Kline hasn’t strayed far from her alma mater, serving as a member of the board of directors for the GW Hillel, whose building is named after her grandparents.

In recent years, Kline began searching for new ways to give back to the university and was excited when she learned about the GW Cancer Center, established in 2015, which incorporates all existing cancer-related activities at GW. Kline says she has had an interest in cancer, particularly the human experience of the disease and its treatment, prompted by her own father’s diagnosis and passing from gastric cancer about 20 years ago.

“I had such strong feelings about what it’s like to be family to someone with cancer,” she says. “Whether you’re the patient or the caregiver, the whole family feels like it has cancer.”

Early in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States and forced city- and state-wide shutdowns, which also impacted how patients received medical care, including cancer patients. Kline quickly reached out to the GW Cancer Center to learn what they needed during the unprecedented period, specifically regarding cancer patients.

After discussing a few options, Kline says an ideal opportunity presented itself. She would help to purchase an electronic distress screening program to help facilitate access to and provision of psychosocial care to cancer patients.

“The tool is used to try to look at the whole person and make sure the whole person is doing well, because that puts them in the best position to fight the cancer,” Kline says. “This will help assess not just where they are in their cancer or their fight against it, but how they are doing overall. Sometimes we tend to treat the disease more than the person.”

The GW Cancer Center has been operating under a cancer committee standard requiring the assessment of patients for distress at various touchpoints, including the start of treatment and at the point of any change in treatment. Up to this point, it has been done in paper format for patients on the first day of chemotherapy, explains Shane Fitchett, manager for patient support services for the GW Cancer Center.

The screener, which is accessible on a tablet in-office or can be sent to patients ahead of their appointments, segments the information gathered into three categories: behavioral and mental health levels of distress; practical distress, including concerns over transportation, financial, and caregiver needs; and clinical distress over concerns about skin side effects and potential hair loss, for example.

With the electronic tool, the care team can start communicating with the patient in the pre-chemotherapy phase when they are preparing to come in for their treatment. When they finally do come in for their first treatment, the team will already have some sense of what their needs are and how they can best support them.

Adam Friedman, MD, director of the GW Supportive Oncodermatology Clinic and interim chair of the Department of Dermatology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, says the distress screener presents a great opportunity to have a formalized system for patients to be able to “put up the bat signal and say, ‘I’m in trouble and I need help.’ ”

Using the tool, a patient’s care team may develop a baseline of what their needs are and can use it as a starting point to determine which support services the patient would benefit from, including Friedman’s clinic.

“There’s plenty of data showing that one of the biggest pain points for patients on the physical and emotional levels is the plethora of dermatologic side effects, notably the possibility of losing one’s hair,” Friedman says. “There are even studies showing patients refuse cancer treatment out of fear of developing some of those side effects, from skin rashes to brittle, painful nails to hair loss.”

In addition to Kline’s gift, the tool was made possible by a matching contribution from La Roche-Posay, a skincare brand within the dermatology division of L’Oreal, which has been providing unrestricted philanthropic support to the Supportive Oncodermatology Clinic since 2017.

“We are thrilled that our support of the GW Cancer Center will enable patients to have access to the distress scanner tool, which may help minimize suffering during treatment,” says Tyler Steele, spokesperson for La Roche-Posay. “Feeling good in your skin and helping to improve quality of life are core to the mission of La Roche-Posay.

The La Roche-Posay skincare brand was created by a pharmacist in France for dermatology patients at the renowned balneotherapy treatment center in,” he says. “That center offers treatments and programs to improve the quality of life for patients with many diseases and conditions, including cancer patients with cutaneous side effects from treatment. Supporting cancer centers to improve patient outcomes is a global concern of La Roche-Posay, so we remain greatly impressed by the work Dr. Friedman and his colleagues do for the patients at GW.”

For Kline, COVID-19 provided even greater perspective on her values. “We are all one community, and we all have the potential to suffer. We see there are steps we can take to prevent another person from getting sick and possibly dying.”

By contributing to the distress screener tool at the GW Cancer Center, Kline believes she’s taken a step to contribute to bringing some sense of comfort to patients and caregivers to make the fight against cancer just a little bit easier.

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