ECMC Cancer Center Care Offers Options for those with Cancer

Multidisciplinary team pays close attention to all elements of patient care

By Jana Eisenberg

A personal experience with a family member experiencing oral cancer led Maureen Sullivan to want to become a dentist specializing in oncology. Now, as the chief of the department of dentistry/division of oral oncology and maxillofacial prosthetics at ECMC’s Center for Cancer Care, she’s deeply involved in patient care, treatment and outcomes.

ECMC’s Center for Cancer Care focuses on head and neck, plastic and reconstructive surgery, dental and medical oncology, maxillofacial prosthetics, and breast oncology — and uses a multidisciplinary team which pays close attention to all elements of patient care, including diagnosis, treatment and maintenance, all provided with a cooperative approach.

The center occupies an entire floor at the medical center, where it is well-positioned to provide this integrated and centralized care in the Buffalo region.

“Our robust and in-depth team takes care of patients with head, neck and other cancers,” said Sullivan. “Even if a patient doesn’t have a head or neck cancer, treatments for other cancers can affect the oral cavity.

“We see patients before they start breast and other cancer treatments, to help avoid treatment-related dental infections, to manage long-term care and monitor any long-term complications,” said Sullivan. “We also work closely with patients on ‘cancer survivorship,’ performing restorative surgery and/or providing complicated prosthetics.”

One of the programs of which she is justifiably proud is the oral cancer screening program. Dentist Jennifer Frustino is the director of oral cancer screenings and diagnostics. She works with the latest technology to screen and diagnose patients at high risk for oral cancer.

“Many patients have survived head and neck cancer treatments,” added Sullivan. “But if they continue to smoke, for example, they remain at risk. We monitor their health closely.”

Smoking cessation is another obvious focus. The ECMC Center for Cancer Care has a group of faculty who rigorously engage with patients to participate in smoking cessation, which can greatly reduce people’s chances of getting cancer.

“It is a heavy lift to get patients to quit smoking,” attested Sullivan. “We have the highest number of patients who enroll in the state quitline.”

The center focuses some of its work on cutting edge treatments, as new and effective drugs and treatments are being developed every year. “I feel fortunate that our head and neck surgeons push the envelope on induction and immunotherapies,” said Sullivan. “We use a team effort to work toward survivorship with minimal side effects. So, if there is a chance to cure a patient with a novel drug and/or minimally invasive surgery, we like to avoid radiation. That can improve survivorship and enhance quality of life.”

A confident team which communicates well is one of the keys to the center’s abilities to treat this wide variety of patients. “For every new patient, we meet to discuss the case — the treatment options, or any challenges,” said Sullivan. “Our comfort level as a professional team is great. If I, or any of us, sees something that might be a problem, we don’t hold back. You can find your colleagues, and get that patient admitted that day. I know who to find and how to get a handle on it. And I know that the team expects the same from me.”

As an example, Sullivan points to a recent patient who traveled from Watertown in Northern New York, which is about three and a half hours away. “This patient was coming in to be fitted for a complicated prosthetic,” said Sullivan. “I was needed for surgery, then the lab tech needed a long time — there were also two prosthodontists needed. The patient was there the whole day…but they were done in one day! What makes it work is that all the attending physicians, assistants, and lab technicians care so much about the patients. That means everything.”