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Steamboat social worker coordinates integrated services to help patients through cancer

Licensed acupuncturist Lisa Thornhill delivers ear acupuncture to a patient during a check-in with licensed clinical social worker Katie Keller, background, at UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center in Steamboat Springs.
UCHealth/Courtesy photo

Many patients going through the toughest parts of breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery may be so overwhelmed physically and emotionally that they do not know what they need to feel better.

That’s where assistance from someone such as Katie Keller, a licensed clinical social worker at UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center in Steamboat Springs, can help patients navigate one of the hardest journeys they may have to face.

Keller meets with new cancer patients to help connect them to integrated services ranging from physical therapy to assistance with advance directives. Those services may not be as medically critical as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but together the package of services can help patients get through the darkest hours.



Cancer patients often readily accept the three free clinical massages, followed by growing interest in receiving acupuncture treatments, nutrition consults and a rehabilitation assessment, Keller said. Other ongoing support services through the cancer center include counseling, support groups, financial counseling and a therapeutic writing offering. Recently, the center added a support group for breast cancer survivors at 3:30 p.m. the third Thursday of each month, in addition to other confidential monthly groups for breast cancer patients and caregivers.

Sanaya Sturm, nurse manager overseeing Jan Bishop Cancer Center as well as UCHealth Gloria Gossard Breast Care Center, is happy to have the full-time social work support for oncology patients. Hospital officials hope success with the oncology-based social worker can grow into similar positions for other chronic medical patients at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.



Handing out a flyer with a list of resources is often just not enough when a patient is overwhelmed with cancer. Personal conversations with a social worker help to facilitate connections to the most helpful resources, Sturm said.

“I think human connection is so important,” Sturm said. “There’s these wonderful services that are complementary to treatments that are so beneficial for patients.”

Keller talks with patients about their biggest barriers to receiving treatment, impacts to family relationships, mortality concerns and the inevitable grief about getting cancer.

Katie Keller, licensed clinical social worker, serves full time for cancer patients at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“The overwhelm of having a cancer diagnosis is absolutely where we start,” Keller said. Some of the top concerns for breast cancer patients include body image, loss of who they believe they were, stress and anxiety management, sleep and financial resources.

“When you have a diagnosis of cancer, you are experiencing grief, and you need to treat it as grief, and there is a cycle of grief,” Keller said.

One of the reasons the cancer center can offer full-time social work support to coordinate and expand the integrated services team is through the generous support of donors John and Carrie Hayden from Routt County. Carrie Hayden was treated locally for breast cancer in 2013 and said many of the integrated services positively affected her care and well-being.

Acupuncture, for example, can help relieve stress and anxiety. Patients can even receive acupuncture in the ear before chemotherapy infusions to lessen nausea, vomiting and fatigue, said Lisa Thornhill, a licensed acupuncturist at YVMC.

The suite of supportive services was not chosen at random but are specifically recommended by integrative health physicians to assist cancer patients.

Dr. Nicole Cotter, a rheumatologist and integrative medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said the integrative medicine approach to fighting cancer takes into account the whole person and their lifestyle. She said the complimentary therapies have high-quality scientific evidence for safety and effectiveness with the mainstream therapies.

“It’s helping people get through the side effects of cancer and provides another level of emotional support,” said Keller, 45, who started her role in April.

“When you get cancer there is a lot of things that are happening to you. There is a lot of waiting, a lot of questioning,” Keller added. “With integrated health services, these are pieces that people can do. They can actively be a part of their treatment.”

In addition to Dr. Cotter, providers who are part of the integrated services team for oncology patients at Yampa Valley Medical Center include massage therapists Monica Schwaller and Sarah Bratt, registered dietitian nutritionist Lana Jarosch, and Amy Goodwin, a licensed professional counselor and behavioral health counselor. A number of therapists at SportsMed Clinic, including two certified lymphedema therapists, also work with cancer patients.


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