New Clinic Aims to Help Sarcoma Survivors Live Long, Healthy Lives

by Erinn Jessop, St. Baldrick's Foundation
July 1, 2015

The challenges for kids with sarcoma don’t end when they hit five years cancer-free. Like survivors of other childhood cancers, these kids are at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, and a host of other problems as they grow up. The Sarcoma Survivorship Program headed by St. Baldrick’s researcher Dr. Laurence Baker aims to help survivors of childhood cancer overcome those issues and live long and healthy lives.

Dr. Laurence Baker stands with his team

The Sarcoma Survivorship Program team, from left to right: cardio-oncologist Dr. Monika Leja, medical oncologist Dr. Larry Baker, nurse practitioner Amira Deep, and cardiology nurse Kelly Siedlik.

There’s a terrible reality faced by sarcoma survivors — that the therapies needed to treat their cancer, like chemotherapy and radiation, can then cause other health problems and even shorten their lives years after being cured.

Dr. Laurence Baker created the Sarcoma Survivorship Clinic at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center to intervene in that cycle.

Sarcomas are cancers that occur in bones, muscles or connective tissues (like tendons and ligaments). Sarcomas can affect children or adults, but there are some sarcomas, like embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, that are much more common in children.

Cancer survivorship rates have greatly increased over the years and that should be celebrated, Dr. Baker said, but there’s still a long way to go.

“If he dies in his 40s of heart disease, then we got cheated, didn’t we? Because he should have lived into his 80s or 90s,” he said. “… It’s good that someone is cured of disease — that’s a prerequisite to longer life — but not if they die of something else that you could have prevented.”

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Pediatric sarcomas tend to be aggressive and difficult to treat. Treatment often involves a combination of surgery, radiation and high-dose chemotherapy — all of which can lead to long-term health consequences for survivors.

Having the clinic located in a cardiovascular center is no accident. The most common of those problems is heart disease.

“Cardiologists have been practicing prevention for a very long time, and they’ve been very successful at it. They know how to lower cholesterol, they know how to get you to quit smoking, how to manage your hypertension, et cetera,” he said. “All of those factors are critical to the survivorship of a sarcoma patient, so we chose [to have the Sarcoma Survivorship Clinic] be located in the cardiovascular center.”

BLOG: Researcher’s Findings Could Redefine Treatment for Kids With Rhabdomyosarcoma >

To Dr. Baker’s knowledge, the clinic is the first to bring cardio-oncology and sarcoma medical oncology staff together.

“There’s a number of experts that we brought together who we think are good clinicians, who we think understand the cancer patient from a variety of ways,” Dr. Baker said.

The Sarcoma Survivorship Clinic opened in October 2014 and has seen patients from all over the country.

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The clinic is making progress. They are establishing a database of their patients to look at health trends of sarcoma survivors over time and hiring more staff, Dr. Baker said.

St. Baldrick’s funding made all of it possible, he added. St. Baldrick’s awarded the clinic its very first outside funding, and the program has just netted its first federal dollars.

“I’ll never forget that,” Dr. Baker said of the award from St. Baldrick’s. “It’s the first [grant] that gets your foot in the door.”

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