Dr. Alan Skarbnik
Dr. Alan Skarbnik

It’s easy to miss signs of blood cancer – but there’s good news. Patients who know the symptoms can get a doctor’s diagnosis more quickly – and advanced treatments at Novant Health offer better outcomes.

Early diagnosis of leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma is key, said Novant Health oncologist Dr. Alan Skarbnik. Skarbnik and Ashley Davis, a leader with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, discussed blood cancer symptoms, treatment advances and support options.

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What are the most common symptoms of this type of cancer that would lead someone to seek further medical attention?

There are a variety of symptoms that can appear in patients with blood cancers. The most common:

  • Bone pain.
  • Easy bleeding.
  • Easy bruising.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fluid retention.
  • Severe night sweats.
  • Swelling.
  • Unexplained fevers.
  • Weight loss.

“Fortunately, patients have been diagnosed in earlier stages where doctors may be able to address the cancer better,” Skarbnik said. “It is important to bring up any new symptoms to your primary care physician. A detailed physical exam and laboratory workup may lead to early diagnosis. Unfortunately, there are no screening methods for blood cancers — such as colonoscopies for colon cancer or mammograms for breast cancer.”

What’s the outlook for patients who are diagnosed today with blood cancer compared to a decade ago?

Skarbnik said we’ve made a lot of progress in treating blood cancers, due to clinical trials and new therapies. Previously, chemotherapy and radiation therapy were the only options. Today, there are a variety of treatments that can be safer and better tolerated by patients. Examples include: immunotherapy, advanced cell therapy and more. Enrolling in a clinical trial is another way to participate in modern therapies and help researchers find a cure for blood cancer.

“When I started practicing more than a decade ago, a lot of the different treatments and therapies that we’re using now didn’t exist,” Skarbnik said. “Patients ask me, ‘What will my treatment be?’ I tend to say, ‘Well, this might be your treatment now, but it might not always be this way because things are changing so fast — and that’s a good thing.’”

Despite all the advances in treatment, Skarbnik understands how devastating the diagnosis can be to a person and their family. Some blood cancers are acute and need immediate therapy. Other are chronic conditions that may be observed for prolonged periods, he said.

“Many blood cancers are curable; however, there are a number that are not, and we see these blood cancers as chronic conditions and offer treatments as a way to get a person back to a ‘new normal,’” Skarbnik said.

“There may be periods of intense treatment, but there are other periods where we can take a pause. Our goal is to get patients or families back to the other side — as ‘normal’ as possible.”

You’ll find the inspiring journey of one Novant Health multiple myeloma patient here.

Would you encourage a patient to enroll in a clinical trial?

Research is important in advancing new therapies and treatments for blood cancer. One way to do this is to enroll in a clinical trial.

“Sometimes, the best treatment for a patient is participating in a clinical trial,” Skarbnik said. “A clinical trial offers opportunities to participate in modern therapies, plus it helps our entire field learn more. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society does so much to support clinical trials and we appreciate their efforts.”

Because there’s always new information about blood cancer treatments, it might be overwhelming for a patient to Google their diagnosis. How do you help patients deal with information overload?

Skarbnik advises patients and caregivers to stick to well-curated, science-informed websites, such as:

  • CLL Society.
  • International Myeloma Foundation.
  • Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
  • Lymphoma Research Foundation.
  • Novant Health Healthy Headlines.
  • Treatment can be expensive. What can Novant Health do to help patients offset the cost?

    Skarbnik said that he and his colleagues work closely with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to help patients access grant money to pay for medication. Novant Health also provides financial assistance for patients who receive medically necessary services and meet certain eligibility requirements.

    “Especially for patients who are taking oral medications or who are on Medicare, we want to make sure we can provide proper access to medication,” Skarbnik said.

    In addition, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offers various financial and travel assistance to help patients with getting care, too.

    “Our goal is to make sure that no patient ever has to put their treatment aside to deal with household expenses,” Davis said.

    How does the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society become part of a patient’s journey?

    The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society becomes a big part of a patient’s life as soon as they call its phone number, 800-955-4572.

    “Any patient, caregiver or physician can call that number and speak to a social worker or nurse to discuss all of the resources that we have available to patients,” Davis said. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed or newly diagnosed, the best thing you can do is reach out and talk to us. We can help you find out what your needs are.”

    The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offers financial services, educational programming and wellness resources to help people stay informed and healthy during treatment. The organization also has a program that connects patients to other blood cancer survivors.

    “We support patients through every aspect of their cancer journey, from diagnosis through survivorship,” Davis said. “We’re proud to offer a wide array of services for anyone who contacts us.”

    How can caregivers get connected to care?

    Far too often, people forget to ask about the caregivers, whose roles can be exhausting and even devastating.

    “We offer the same support to patients as we do caregivers,” Davis said. “From wellness and nutritional information to helping them get connected to peer support groups, we have a wide menu of services available to caregivers.”

    Tell us more about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event.

    Light the Night, on Nov. 18, is the organization’s largest community event in Charlotte.

    “It's an evening walk event where participants carry lanterns that symbolize their connection to our mission,” Davis said. “Current patients, survivors, supporters or caregivers walk because they want to see an end to cancer. It’s a magical, wonderful and inspiring event for people to come together.”

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