Sarah Hoffer (first year PA student) goes through her experience working in the Radiation Oncology department during her longitudinal placement.
What LP did you do?
I was in Radiation Oncology with Dr. Wright at the Juravinski Cancer Center. Specifically, I attended follow-up clinics with head and neck cancer patients who had completed radiation and/or chemotherapy treatments.
How did you go about contacting and arranging the LP?
I knew that I wanted to do an LP in radiation oncology because in my Masters program I studied DNA repair, and I felt that it would be a good place to see the clinical side of this (radiation therapy works by breaking cancer cells’ DNA to kill and stop them from growing). I used the McMaster directory to find Dr. Wright’s contact information and he kindly let me join his team for four half days!
What were the two main things you learned from this LP?
At this LP I had the opportunity to observe laryngoscopies. This allowed me to look at patient’s vocal cords through an endoscope, which was very exciting and fascinating!
A very important thing I learned was that treating illness isn’t just giving a patient therapy – it's also monitoring the patient to prevent recurrence, and helping them manage complications of their treatment. For this LP, I attended clinics with follow-ups for head and neck cancer patients who had completed their radiation and chemotherapy. Common complications of radiation therapy that I saw amongst patients were a loss of saliva (and consequent dry mouth, tooth decay, and difficulty swallowing), tinnitus (ringing in one’s ears), and a loss of sensation of taste. These problems can persist for years and in some cases indefinitely. In addition to providing radiation therapy to cancer patients, practitioners must help them cope with the side effects of radiation and monitor patients’ improvement over time.
What did you wish you knew to help you in your LP?
Unfortunately, we had not covered oncology in class before I did this LP. However, I felt comfortable doing it with my background knowledge about biochemistry and cancer from my undergrad and Masters degrees. I also wish I had known more about interpreting CT imaging prior to this LP.
How has this experience helped you clinically, in class and/or in career decision making?
As mentioned above, this LP gave me the opportunity to talk to many patients whose lifestyles had been affected by their illnesses, long after they had been treated. Some patients no longer enjoyed their favourite foods and others’ voices had changed permanently. It really gave me an appreciation of the factors that patients must overcome after treatment as well as the importance of following up with patients once treatment is complete. Until I did this LP, I would break up my notes for each illness into a subheading for “Pathophysiology”, “Causes”, “Risk factors”, “Investigations”, and “Treatment”. Now I’ve added a very important subheading: “Follow-up”.
I would definitely consider a career in Oncology and think that PA’s could be very helpful with oncology follow-up clinics. If a PA is working in a follow-up clinic, the physician could have more time to make radiation plans for new patients and to see more patients in the day.
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