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From Chaos, Calm: Cancer Care in Focus

June 28, 2022

Josh Vintner-Jackson running on an outdoor trail.

Josh Vintner-Jackson.

For avid marathon runner and U.K. native Josh Vintner-Jackson, 2020 was an especially tough year: Mere months after he moved to Texas, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And shortly afterward, what started as stomach pain revealed a stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis for Vintner-Jackson, just 28. 

“I wasn’t allowed to leave my apartment due to my weakened immune system,” Vintner-Jackson, now 31, says. “My family couldn’t be here, as they live abroad. It was not what I was anticipating life looking like, by any stretch.”

After surgery to remove a tumor the size of a golf ball, Vintner-Jackson began a chemotherapy regimen with UT Health Austin’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes, part of the clinical practice of Dell Medical School. There, the institutes’ award-winning CaLM model of care became a crucial part of his life.

Shorthand for “Cancer Life ReiMagined,” CaLM is a team-based approach that prioritizes whole-person cancer care. An interdisciplinary team delivers comprehensive care — from medical treatment and mental health care to other services such as nutrition coaching and genetic counseling — in one location, minimizing logistical stress. And, uniquely, the entire model was co-designed by cancer patients and families.

The New Yorker describes the approach and others like it at UT Health Austin as “expansive,” at the forefront of a sea change in medical treatment — one where patients’ non-medical needs are recognized and their opinions are central to the course of care.

“Cancer has become a chronic illness resulting in care that is long term, whether that’s months or years,” says S. Gail Eckhardt, M.D., director of the Livestrong Cancer Institutes and chair of Dell Med’s Department of Oncology. “Constantly juggling appointments between specialists is exhausting and unsustainable. CaLM was born out of a desire to minimize the chaos of cancer care and help people re-engage back into their lives.”

For someone like Vintner-Jackson, whose family was unable to visit during his six months of chemotherapy treatment, the connections with his care team became all the more meaningful. Frequent calls, texts and other points of contact — often just to check in — made a world of difference for his treatment and outlook.

“The way we all work together as a team to review a patient’s case — radiation oncologists, surgeons, pathology, social work, everybody — brings a level of personalization that’s hard to find elsewhere,” says Anna Capasso, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of oncology at Dell Med and Vintner-Jackson’s physician. “It’s important for us not to act as though a person is completely defined by their cancer, either — we just want to be good humans and help people get through this in a way that feels right for them.”

Care for the Caregiver

Leslie Love and her husband, Mark Love, were beginning a new life chapter as empty nesters and grandparents prior to Mark’s diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The Loves began seeing the Livestrong Cancer Institutes team — including Capasso — in 2019, making the 10-minute drive from their home to the clinic. The proximity enabled their Austinite daughters to go to Mark’s chemotherapy treatments with him. After Mark died in 2020, Leslie recalls the treatment experience bittersweetly.

“The nurses always had a personalized, inspirational note for Mark up on the board,” Leslie says. “Dr. Capasso would pull her chair right next to us and discuss the next course of action for treatment before we went across the hall into the infusion room. Even though it was one of the saddest places to be in your life — because you never think you’re going to be in one — it never felt that way to us.”

Throughout treatment, the Loves developed a meaningful relationship with the care team and were able to customize Mark’s care plan around life goals — like scheduling chemotherapy appointments to avoid difficult side effects while he walked his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. The connections were, at times, highly personal: “Dr. Capasso is from an Italian Catholic family and knew that Mark was also Catholic, so she shared with us a pendant and some blessed holy water that her mother had collected in Lourdes,” Leslie says. “The connection that they had was really special and that human connection meant the world to me and to him.”

Leslie herself represents an important, yet little acknowledged, part of cancer care — the caregiver. Counseling for her was crucial during the complex and protracted grieving process, which she notes began well before Mark’s passing. 

“We spend all day talking with and about patients, and it’s an equally important part of our jobs to talk with caregivers and get their perspective,” says Angela Luna, LCSW, senior social worker at the Livestrong Cancer Institutes. Luna developed the psychosocial support program with institute leadership from inception. “It’s not just an extra thing we do — it’s a critical component of care. Cancer is incredibly isolating for everyone involved.”

13.1 Miles Forward, One Step Back

When his chemotherapy came to an end last year, Vintner-Jackson dove back into his fitness pursuits — but this time, on a mission: In March 2022, Vintner-Jackson ran the Austin Half Marathon and completed his first CrossFit competition to raise over $5,000 for colorectal cancer research.

But his personal journey isn’t over. Following a test this winter, Vintner-Jackson learned of lingering tumor DNA in his blood, indicating a high risk of recurrence. Drawing on her research expertise and network, Capasso recommended him for a nearby clinical trial of a treatment for patients facing this reality.

“If someone has to go through what I’ve gone through, I hope they go through it with a team like mine,” Vintner-Jackson says. “Even outside the duty of care, there was a personal connection and level of attention that I’d want for a loved one in my situation. I can’t be too stressed about things that are out of my control, but I can work to help others receive this level of care.”