Grant from Avon Foundation to fund program to help poor, underserved patients

Cancer survivors stand strong together

A $1.16 million grant from the Avon Foundation will fund a program that helps poor, underserved patients being treated for breast cancer at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center navigate their way through the complicated county health care system.

Part of money raised in the fifth annual Avon Walk for Breast Cancer Los Angeles, the grant to UCLA was announced Sept. 16, 2007, during closing ceremonies for the walk at Queen Mary Events Park.

The UCLA-Avon Cares for Life program, offered through UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center, provides a GPS system of sorts to help these patients get the primary and follow-up care they need. So far, it has proven invaluable to low-income, underinsured and uninsured women, many of them minorities, who are treated for breast cancer at the county hospital. The women are guided by bilingual case workers from diagnosis through chemotherapy and beyond.

"We make sure they understand their diagnosis and meet with the appropriate doctors," said Lori Viveros, who manages the program. "We help them overcome language barriers and make sure they receive the right follow-up care. We provide the patients with literature and educational materials to help them understand what's ahead. It really helps them to have the big picture."

Case workers are there to hold the patient's hand, literally and figuratively, through the cancer experience. They are there when the patient receives her first round of chemotherapy, providing comfort at a very scary time. Viveros said many patients are not accompanied by family members to medical appointments because of work conflicts, so the women would otherwise be alone.

"One of the most important things we provide is a sense of comfort," said Viveros. "They're newly diagnosed with cancer and frightened. They don't know where to go or what to do. Sometimes they're not able to understand what their doctors are telling them. We help them get everything done that needs to be done."

When Sheryl Brefka, 49, formerly of Lancaster, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2006, she said her reaction was "pure terror."

"Everyone I knew who had cancer died. I thought I was going to die," Brefka said.

Finding her way around the large county facility was a daunting prospect, she said, "especially considering the kind of shape I was in after finding out I had cancer."

The program, she said, was her salvation.

"I was so impressed with it," Brefka said. "With Lori there, the hospital didn't seem so big. She helped me keep track of my appointments, showed me where my doctor was, and told where I had to go next. The help and comfort that I got through the program made having cancer not as horrifying as it would otherwise have been."

The UCLA-Avon Cares For Life program grew out of a pilot program, also funded by the Avon Foundation. Working in concert with the Olive View medical staff in radiology, general surgery, and medical oncology, the program has assisted 189 patients with breast cancer as of June 2007. About 89 percent of patients who entered the program as newly diagnosed patients have adhered to their treatment plan.

With the $1.16 million grant from Avon, the program is expanding. A program to follow patients at high risk for developing breast cancer is being created.  Survivorship services also will be offered to patients. Partnerships will be formed with regional county health clinics in the Olive View service area to ensure smooth transitions for women diagnosed with breast abnormalities in the community. And four new clinical trials for breast cancer are planned as well.

The Avon grant also is helping to fund a new mammography suite with the newest digital technology at the Santa Monica-UCLA campus, an imaging center under the direction of Dr. Lawrence Bassett, a professor of radiology. The suite will help reduce the time that women have to wait for a mammogram. Breast imaging fellowships also are being funded by the grant.