A brief Introduction to Oncology: Part I

Since graduating in September last year I’ve been working in Oncology, it’s been a steep learning curve and there’s still so much more to learn but I thought I’d share a few bits and pieces that might be useful background reading for anyone with an oncology placement coming up! Skip to the bottom of the page for a list of useful resources and a glossary of oncology terms.


Cell Biology Basics

Cancer can be defined as malignant uncontrolled growth from abnormal cell division. Before any new placement I found it useful to recap the relevant anatomy and physiology beforehand, therefore I thought it might be useful to include a mini recap of the basics of the cell cycle. If your oncology placement has a particular sub-speciality, for example haematology or gynaecology, you may also find it useful to revise the relevant body system.

cell cycle

Mitosis can be subdivided into 4 stages, prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase. G1 is when cellular contents (excluding chromosomes) are duplicated, S phase is where DNA is synthesised and duplicated and the G2 phase is when checking for errors in chromosome repair occurs, then the cells divide to produce two daughter cells. From G1, some cells may enter G0, a resting phase when cell division ceases.

Different cytotoxic drugs act on different parts of the cell cycle. As such you may find that different types of chemotherapy are given in combination to have a synergistic effect.

hallmarkswheel

The Hallmarks of Cancer, as described by Hanahan and Weinberg, illustrates the different types of mutations within carcinogenesis that enable survival and uncontrolled growth of cancer cells in tumours. Researchers can use these hallmarks as a focus for mechanisms of cytotoxic drugs. For example; Bevacizumab (Avastin), prevents angiogenesis so it slows the growth of new blood vessels, preventing the growth of this new vasculature supplying the tumour.

Cancer Staging

TNM staging is the most widely used clinical staging tool for solid tumours (does not apply to CNS tumours or haematological malignancies). It categorises the stage of the cancer with three simple alphanumeric codes corresponding to the categories of the primary tumour, involvement of lymph nodes and whether the cancer has metastasised. Prefixes and codes for additional modifiers can be added to give additional clinical information including details such as resection margins or specific histology of samples.

TNM staging

A number of disease group specific staging classifications are also used, a few you may come across are: Dukes (colorectal), Clarke & Breslow (melanoma), Lugano classification (lymphoma), Gleason score (prostate), and Robson staging system (renal cell carcinoma).

Communication

As with any placement area, communication is key! The following tools may be useful to recap  before starting your next placement.

SBAR

For acute situations the SBAR handover tool is great to clearly handover key clinical information. It provides structure to help you provide clear and concise information.

When exploring broader concerns with patients and relatives the Sage & Thyme communication tool can be really useful to help gather information and respond with empathy. Developed at UHSM in 2006 it can provide structure to responses in emotive situations, actively listening with the patient guiding the solution. (I’d also strongly recommend going on this course if you ever get the opportunity to go while on placement or in your future career.)

If you’re dealing with patients or relatives who wish to make a complaint the LASTED mnemonic can be useful to help structure a response but in your role as a student it’s best to escalate the situation to a member of staff; Listen, Acknowledge, Solve, Thank, Explain, Document.

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Source: Learning aid from Critical Care Department at Manchester Royal Infirmary

Body language, although non-verbal is an important communication tool. SOLER, SURETY and other similar models help illustrate the key components in effective non-verbal communication.

Last but not least, always remember to introduce yourself to patients and ask their permission before performing or observing any procedure! #hellomynameishello-my-name-is-logo-web

Palliative Care

From the latin Palliare, meaning ‘to cloak’, palliative care is essentially the relief of pain and associated symptoms without treating the underlying cause of the condition. You may come across this as ‘Best Supportive Care’ in a move away from negative connotations of palliative care in the media.

Dame Cecily Saunders was the founder of the hospice movement and a pioneer in palliative medicine. As increasing numbers of people began to die in a hospital environment rather than at home, she recognised the inadequacy of care and the fears of patients. Particularly regarding a terminal cancer diagnosis, where pain relief was insufficient due to the prevailing medical beliefs surrounding opiates. She led an evidence based medical and social change to provide holistic care encompassing physical, spiritual and psychological well-being in the last days of life.

Within palliative care you’ll gain exposure to pain management, controlling nausea and secretions, as well as learning how to manage other issues such as, constipation, terminal restlessness and spiritual distress. This will be in cases where a patient’s primary cancer has spread to other organs and is no longer considered curable, some patients may have a longer prognosis and better quality of life and others will have a much more limiting diagnosis so there can be a wide spectrum within palliative care, therefore care should accordingly be holistic and individual. It’s also imperative to discuss a patient’s preferred place of care and preferred place of death as part of the holistic assessment and Advance Care Planning, you may find the 5 Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance) by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross a useful resource as a framework to understand the grieving process.

Despite a life limiting metastatic cancer diagnosis there can still be treatment options sometimes this will include palliative intervention such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and also surgeries. Sometimes hormone therapies or receptor specific SACT (for example, Trastuzumab (Herceptin) in HER2 positive breast cancer). In these cases the aim will be to prolong life and improve remaining quality of life. In these cases it’s important for the medical team proposing the treatment to have sensitive but frank discussions with the patient to ensure there are no misconceptions around the purpose of any proposed treatments.

On that note, remember that oncology isn’t all doom and gloom!! You may find that some people may comment that they think it must be a depressing job but it can be a really rewarding  and holistic environment. Cancer is a very emotive topic and most people will have a friend or family member who has been affected by cancer.

Although the prevalence of cancer may have increased in recent years, the overall incidence of cancer has remained fairly stable . This is due to an increase in overall life expectancy leading to an older demographic of patients with cancer who, some decades ago would likely have died of other comorbidities. Recent developments in anti-cancer therapies has led to an increase in patients living with cancer, including conditions which would have historically been untreatable.

However, as with any areas of nursing there you will experience end of life care and care of the deceased person. It’s important to remember that most people have had very limited experience with death and it can sometimes be hard to process difficult situations that your peers can’t relate to.

Remember if you’re struggling or feeling upset it’s absolutely okay to take yourself off to a quiet corner to collect yourself if you need to, you are supernumerary! Don’t underestimate the benefits of a debrief with your preceptor and remember that your AA and the PEF are always available. If you want to talk to somebody out of office hours the Greater Manchester Nightline listening and information service is open from 8pm-8am during term time.

ECOG Performance Score

This grading tool is commonly used in all areas of oncology to assess disease progression and how this impact’s on a patient’s activities of daily living. Created by the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group, this 0-5 scale is something you will come across on any oncology placements, familiarising yourself with the descriptions of these categories will help you understand the impact of performance status on patient’s day to day experiences.

Grade 0 : Fully active, able to carry on all pre-disease performance without restriction
Grade 1 : Restricted in physically strenuous activity but ambulatory and able to carry out work of a light or sedentary nature, e.g., light house work, office work
Grade 2 : Ambulatory and capable of all self care but unable to carry out any work activities, up and about more than 50% of waking hours
Grade 3 : Capable of only limited self care, confined to bed or chair more than 50% of waking hours
Grade 4 : Completely disabled, cannot carry on any self care, totally confined to bed or chair
Grade 5 : Dead

Specific side effects are graded primarily using the CTCAE (Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events) database. You can view this online here.

Neutropenic Sepsis

Neutropaenia is defined as having a Neutrophil count of less than 1. Chemotherapy can cause a drop in Neutrophil count, some patients on cytotoxic treatment will often be given a Granulocyte Stimulating Factor (GCSF) prophylactically to prevent neutropaenia.

Sepsis

The nadir (lowest point) of a patient’s white cell count usually occurs 7-10 days after chemotherapy. It’s important to consider this if you suspect sepsis.

Sepsis is a life threatening immune response to infection. Make sure that you escalate your concerns quickly to your mentor or another nurse if you think a patient may have sepsis, then they can begin treatment within the hour to improve outcomes. You can find out more information about the Sepsis Six campaign here: www.sepsistrust.org 

Metastatic Spinal Cord Compression

MSCC is an oncological emergency, it occurs when the pressure from a tumour site begins to compress the spinal cord and pain and neurological symptoms occur. This can happen from either a tumour within the CNS system growing within the spinal cord itself, from a tumour pressing on the vertebrae or from vertebrae collapsing and pressing upon the cord as they are weakened by metastases within the bone (bony metastases are more common in progressive Prostate, Lung and Breast cancers).

A ‘red flags’ early warning system has been developed to help quickly identify symptoms that can indicate cord compression. If you suspect a patient may have MSCC it’s important to act quickly and escalate this. The longer the symptoms occur the worse the prognosis can become for the patient and paralysis can become permanent.

MSCC

Its also important to consider these red flags in other clinical settings, such as A&E because ~25% of patients who present with MSCC do not have a diagnosed primary cancer. MSCC is a palliative condition as the cancer has already spread and mestastasized to other sites but it’s still really important to diagnose and treat to prevent paralysis. Even if patients aren’t having active treatment and are being managed with best supportive care, communication is really important as early treatment can mean improved quality of life, but patients may be reluctant to have a hospital admission if their preferred place of care at the end of life is at home.

Chemotherapy Induced Nausea & Vomiting

CINV is one of the main worries of patients undergoing chemotherapy. Since the first chemotherapy treatments were used in the 1940s, antiemetics have come along a long way. Although some drugs, such as Cisplatin, are still highly emetogenic, CINV is able to be better managed through use of anti-sickness medications since it was first licensed for use in 1979. However, due to the portrayal of chemotherapy in films and television, CINV is often a source of great worry for patients. Therefore it’s important to communicate well with your patients to provide information and reassurance and assess the effectiveness of their anti-emetics.

The main causes of CINV are sensitivity of the GI mucosal lining, stimulation of the 5HT3 receptors and direct stimulation of the chemoreceptor trigger zone, although some pathways are unknown. Some common categories of antiemetics are listed below: Most can be given by a variety of routes of administration, you can check these in the BNF, on Medusa (an online injectable medicines guide) or the electronic medicines compendium. 💉💊

Antihistamines- Cyclizine: H1 receptor antagonist. Main side effect: drowsiness but also has anti-muscarinic properties causing xerostomia (dry mouth), blurred vision and urinary retention. Most commonly used for drug induced N&V but also useful in pregnancy as cyclizine is non teratogenic. Hepatic metabolism, half life approximately 20 hours. Note that cyclizine and metoclopramide can’t be given together.

Antimuscarinic- Hyoscine: main mechanism of action is competitive inhibition at M1 receptor. Classic side effects of antimuscarinic drugs may be present- dry mouth, blurred vision and urinary retention.

Dopamine receptor antagonists- Domperidone:  A pure dopamine receptor antagonist, domperidone is often used for drug induced N&V and postoperatively. Metoclopramide: At higher doses metoclopramide also acts as a 5-HT receptor antagonist, this dual action makes it especially effective in CINV. It also has prokinetic effects- this means the rate of gastric emptying is increased alongside an increase in muscle tone of the gastroesophageal sphincter. They are both metabolised in the liver and have significant first pass metabolism.

5-HT receptor antagonsists- Ondansetron, Palonosetron, Granisetron: These drugs all act on 5HT3 receptors within the gut but also in the chemoreceptor trigger zone within the brain. Ondansetron is very commonly given with emetogenic chemotherapies, it’s important to note that for patients  over 65 years old, it should be administered in a bag infused over 15 mins to reduce risk of long Q-T syndrome but if given as a bolus should be given slowly to avoid vein irritation- “Zofran Flare”. Constipation is a common side effect. Palonosetron has similar properties but is longer lasting.

Neurokinin receptor antagonists- Aprepitant: Also known as Emend, it acts in the CNS on NK1 receptors. Aprepitant also has a secondary effect of increasing the effects of 5-HT receptor antagonists and corticosteroids. It is absorbed in the GI tract and metabolised by the liver. Aprepitant can interact with Warfarin, decreasing its effect.

Corticosteroids- Dexamethasone is an example of a corticosteroid given for CINV, in itself it only has weak antiemetic effects but has an additive effect when given with 5-HT receptor antagonists.

Other antiemetic compounds- There have also been recent studies into the use of herbal compounds such as ginger which was previously used in traditional Chinese medicine and mint to investigate their antiemetic properties.

You can browse other side effects from chemotherapy on the Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events (CTCAE) database.

 

Alternative Therapies

As with all nursing specialities, it’s important to ensure that we provide evidence based practice. Some patients may have queries about alternative therapies they have heard about. This can include things like dietary advice such as eating peach stone extract and can be quite dangerous (http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2017/11/01/alternative-cancer-therapies-the-potential-impact-on-survival/). Even some over the counter remedies from health food shops, such as St. John’s wort, can have adverse interactions with medication so it’s always best for patient’s to consult their medical team before taking any additional supplements. Patients may also decline treatment in favour of unregulated and unproven therapies if they are worried about side effects, which reiterates the importance of effective and empathetic communication to address patients concerns and allow them to make informed decisions about their care.

The benefits of complementary therapy alongside conventional treatment should not be understated. Relaxation techniques can be beneficial for needlephobic patients during cannulation or for claustrophobic patients requiring scans or radiotherapy using molded masks. Research has also been done into acupuncture to help prevent peripheral neuropathy.


More topics to follow in An Introduction to Oncology: Part II, including an overview of Central Venous access devices, Scalp cooling, Immunotherapy treatments, Radiotherapy and other palliative care emergencies such as hypercalcaemia and arterial bleeds, watch this space! If there’s any other topics you’d like to be included or to give feedback, please use the form below!

Many thanks to my fantastic preceptor Laura for all your advice and support in helping me survive my first year being qualified and also for proofreading this article!


Useful Resources:

I’d also really recommend The Emperor of all Maladies: A biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee if you’re interested in oncology and a bookworm like me!

Glossary:

Adjuvant Therapy- Treatment (usually hormone therapy, chemotherapy or radiotherapy) given after surgery to ‘mop-up’ any remaining cancerous cells.

Brachytherapy- Radioactive seeds planted within a patients tumour, often used in prostate, cervical and endometrial cancers.

Cancer of Unknown Primary- See also Malignancy of Undefined Origin. True CUP is a very small percentage of MUO patients and has implications for treatment options if the primary cell line is unknown. Provisional CUP is the terminology used until a primary diagnosis has been made or confirmed as a true CUP.

Carcinogen- Substances known to cause cancer.

Carcinoma- Cancers which originate from tissues that line internal organs or the skin.

Clinical Oncology- Medical specialty focussing on the treatment of cancer with radiotherapy.

Concurrent- Different modalities of treatment given at the same time, for example chemotherapy alongside radiotherapy.

Cytotoxic- A substance toxic to living cells.

Emetogenic- A substance with the capacity to introduce vomiting (emesis) and nausea.

Dysplasia- The presence of an abnormal cell type, whose growth may be a precursor to cancerous tissue.

In Situ- A Carcinoma In Situ means the tumour has not spread from its original location.

Local Therapy- Treatment specific to the affected area such as surgery or radiotherapy.

Malignancy of Undefined Origin- The term used until a CUP is diagnosed or a primary site is discovered either through scans or histology from biopsies.

Medical Oncology- Medical specialty focussing on the treatment of cancer with drugs.

Metastasis- The spread of cancer from a primary site to other organs of the body either via the bloodstream or lymphatic system or through direct infiltration of adjacent organs by the tumour.

Neo-Adjuvant- Anti-Cancer therapies given to shrink the tumour initially before second stage treatment, usually surgery so the tumour is easier to resect.

SACT- Systemic Anti Cancer Therapy. This encompasses both chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

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Enabling quality of life in very difficult circumstances, by Kate Plant

19964730_1773600412654889_568888045_nA thought provoking guest blog, second year CYP student nurse Kate Plant shares her experiences and insights into palliative care from her DILP summer placement…


Before starting my nursing degree, I volunteered as a Sibling Support Worker at my local Children’s Hospice. So, I already had some idea about how special these places are. But it was not until I undertook my Elective Placement there that I realised how rewarding a nursing role, in the provision of Palliative Care, can be.

The first thing I noticed was the difference in pace, compared to my previous placements. I was used to dashing around on hospital wards and barely having a moment to drink. So, when I was offered a cup of tea on my first day (half an hour into my shift) I was completely taken aback. But, obviously, there were more significant differences than having the time to quench my thirst. A patient would be allocated both a nurse and a care support worker, on a 2:1 basis, due to the complexity of the patient’s needs. This 2:1 care gave nurses time to listen and understand what really matters to the patient and their family. There was no rushing around. The environment was relaxed. Families would allow a nurse and other staff members to enter their lives in very difficult circumstances and build strong relationships with them. This is where the satisfaction came in.

CYPIn addition, I have by no means observed doctors, nurses and care support workers work together as well as within palliative care. There was no division but instead, a sense of unity. This enabled a pleasant atmosphere to bloom within a setting which, stereotypically, has connotations of being constantly surrounded by upsetting situations. All staff members were part of a team, encouraging a family atmosphere so families were as comfortable and happy as possible. Staff were able to take away a families’ everyday stresses so children and their families could treasure the remaining time they have together as a family, however long this may be.

The thing that struck me the most was the parent’s enormous strength to keep a pleasant face for their terminally-ill child and their other children, in one of the hardest times they can ever face. A parent’s strength is aided through their ability to effectively plan, with help from compassionate and empathetic staff members, any wishes they have in the care their child receives before death. This includes preferred place of care, spiritual and cultural wishes and anticipatory symptom management planning.  With such a wide array of resources available at the hospice (including sensory rooms, adapted garden swings, music rooms, parent bedrooms, bereavement rooms – the list could go on and on) these wishes were almost always met.

TOGETHER_LIVES_RESIZE_800_450_90_s_c1_c_cLast year, the ‘Together for Short Lives’ charity reported a national shortage of children’s palliative care nurses which is negatively impacting on the care provided to children and families. I truly believe if other students and qualified nurses were to gain a deeper understanding and/or even experience how rewarding roles in Palliative Care can be, this could help bridge the care gap. After all, you’ll never regret making a difference in the quality of care a child or young person received, during their last moments of life.

“The doctor says I’m dying”: tough conversations about death

One of my most vivid placement memories was my first conversation with a patient about dying. One afternoon I went to check on Joan (name changed), a lady in a side room on an elderly ward. I was helping her to have a drink when she looked up and said: “the doctor says I’m dying.”

I froze. My stomach turned and my mind started racing, taken aback by a statement I felt totally unprepared to respond to. I had grown fond of Joan and to see her so distressed was upsetting. I felt a sense of panic, worried that I might say the wrong thing.

I knew from the handover that morning that Joan was receiving end of life care and from what the other nurses had said, she was deteriorating and it was unlikely that she would get any better.

Taking a deep breath, I thought back to our communication lectures which covered how to deal with difficult questions. I drew up a chair next to Joan and holding her hand, I asked some straightforward questions like ‘when did you discover that?’ and ‘how does that make you feel?’, trying my best to mask my own anxiety and appear relaxed.

pexels-photo-271341

While I think I started off ok, all of a sudden I panicked; I didn’t know what to say next.  Almost without thinking, I said: “Don’t worry Joan, we’re all doing everything we can to get you better and back to your normal self.”

I immediately felt awful and her face said it all; she knew I was covering. I said it out of a desire to help Joan stay hopeful, optimistic, but in reality it sounded trite, like I was brushing her off and trying to avoid a deeper conversation. I think that it made her feel worse.

Kicking myself, I spoke to my mentor who reassured me that she too struggled with questions like those and some research when I got home that night revealed that I wasn’t alone – apparently it’s common for healthcare professionals to avoid or block difficult questions, particularly about death or dying. I suppose we like to focus on how we can ‘fix’ things and don’t want our patients to lose hope.

Looking back, I wish I’d spent more time with Joan, even just to sit quietly by her side. She may have had more questions that she wanted to ask and as a student nurse, I may not have known the answers but I could have found out on her behalf.

Honesty and courage are such important parts of nursing, especially at the end of someone’s life. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to be there; to listen, answer questions and ease fears – or just to hold someone’s hand and let them know that they are not alone.

A Day in a life of a Hospice Nurse

Today I am delighted to bring you a guest blog post from a Hospice Nurse.

After qualifying as a children’s nurse about 2 years ago I worked on a neonatal intensive care ward. Although palliative care was an integral part of the role, I felt that I wasn’t using my specialist paediatric skills so decided to apply for a nursing role at Haven House.

I was lucky enough to be successful and a few months later, I can honestly say I love my job. The encouragement from staff and the hands-on-experience has already helped me progress and develop as a nurse.

The work here varies on a day-to-day basis which makes my job really interesting. At the start of a shift all staff receive a handover from the nurses on the previous care shift. We discuss all aspects of individual care and then a lead nurse allocates each child to a nurse and one of our fantastic health care support workers. This ensures continuity of care and gives everyone a sense of security throughout the day.

Depending on the care plan we bath or shower each child in our luxurious sensory bath that has lights and music. Most of our children attend school, so if it is a weekday we ensure they are dressed, fed and ready for school by 8am. This can sometimes be a challenge but good team work and staff management helps ensure we are usually on time. Haven House has fantastic complementary therapies for children and families to benefit from such as therapeutic yoga and music therapy. When children attend these sessions we usually have the pleasure of providing day care to them as well as attending the therapy session. We also have paperwork, care plans, documentation, audits, research and meetings to attend so it soon comes round to 3:45pm again. The beeping sound of a vehicle in reverse informs us that the school bus has arrived! Each child’s detailed care plan informs staff on shift how, when and exactly what to feed them. After a snack or feed its playtime. Many of our children can’t eat solid foods so are fed through a tube in their stomach.

Next, the children have some down time. Haven House has a sensory room with an interactive floor and walls. Music and lights, sensory toys and games and books for all ages are available in the activity room. Our lovely play co-ordinator ensures there are always activities and crafts set for children to immerse themselves into, whatever the weather. We often spend time in our wonderful grounds or our cinema room – the children love this as it often gives them a feel of family time and time to develop interpersonal relationships with staff and other children. Breaks in play time have to be had when children need changing, medicines or a feed.

Dinner time can’t come soon enough and we either have food ordered in or we whip up a healthy meal ourselves for the children who can eat. After dinner we have a good tidy up and then take the children to their bedrooms to get them prepared for the evening. It’s bath time or showers for those who require them according to their care plan or based on how actively engrossed they were with their messy play and crafts during playtime! Medications are given throughout the day at specific times to each child based on their individual prescriptions.

Once the children are washed, they are dressed in their pyjamas, teeth brushed and settled into their rooms. It’s either story time or a bedtime programme to help children wind down. At 9:45pm the handover process begins again with a fresh team of staff ready for the night shift. I can honestly say it’s a complete privilege to do my job every day. Our children have complex and rare life-limiting conditions and require a great deal of care and attention. I draw my strength from the knowledge that parents and carers look after them on a daily basis without any complaints. Their strength becomes our strength and this translates into brilliant care for each child at Haven House.

Despite the long hours, intensive work and heavy case-loads; I wouldn’t exchange the job satisfaction that nursing gives me for anything else in the world.

Muryum Khan, Pediatric Nurse.