Connecting on a personal level

Baldassarre Stea, MD, PhD, FASTRO
Baldassarre Stea, MD, PhD, FASTRO

At the University of Arizona Cancer Center, one of the highest compliments a radiation oncologist can receive is that he or she is an exceptional “rounder.” What does that mean? Let’s have Baldassarre Stea, MD, PhD, FASTRO, explain.

Dr. Stea is the head of radiation oncology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and clinical leader of Radiation Oncology at the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

“I don’t know if we invented the term ‘rounding’ or not, but it’s something we take a great deal of pride in,” Dr. Stea said. “We spend a lot of time with our patients not necessarily doing clinical work, but instead checking on their mental well-being — chatting with them about their life, getting to know them on a personal level.”

Think of it like a general practitioner making the “rounds” in a hospital ward. Dr. Stea and his team believe cancer recovery isn’t simply a physical challenge. It’s a mental one, as well. Therefore, keeping a patient’s sprits high is of the utmost importance.

“We have a very personalized approach,” Dr. Stea said. “We’re super selective in who we bring on board. We don’t take people who lack an empathetic approach, nor do they even apply.

By the time a patient sees Dr. Stea or one of his colleagues, he or she has often absorbed the initial shock of the cancer diagnosis, but the fear has yet to subside. Just the word “radiation” alone is enough to drive up a patient’s anxiety level.

“A big part of what we do is educate patients and tell them exactly what the process is going to be,” Dr. Stea said. “We’re not spraying the entire body with radiation.”

Instead, the procedure involves a focused beam aimed at the specific tumor from multiple directions. In order to put the patient at ease, it’s vital to know exactly what the doctors plan on doing. It’s a conversation that can’t take place in a 20-minute window in a doctor’s jam-packed schedule, which is why Dr. Stea and his team reserve at least 90 minutes — often more — for every appointment.

“You never want to be in a hurry when you see a patient,” he added. “You never want to be pressed for time. You want to have all the time in the world. Sometimes, a patient can feel a little bit claustrophobic, so we’ll take them on a tour to show them where they’ll be treated. We do all we can to alleviate their fears and make them as comfortable as possible.”

It’s that philosophy that drove the construction of the radiation oncology facility at The University of Arizona Cancer Center - Orange Grove Campus.

The 12,000-square-foot expansion, located at 1891 W. Orange Grove Rd., complements the services already offered at the University Campus location, but brings a more inviting aesthetic.

Since the Orange Grove radiation oncology expansion opened in June, Dr. Stea said roughly one-quarter of The University of Arizona Medical Center – University Campus patients have transferred their care there, with nearly 25 patients per day receiving treatment.

Dr. Stea and his team have a rotating schedule in place to run both facilities, but starting next year, Krisha Opfermann, MD, will assume leadership of the Orange Grove center.

“The Orange Grove location really offers patient-centered care,” Dr. Stea said. “We will work side-by-side with medical and surgical oncologists so patients can get chemotherapy there, walk a few steps and then get radiation. It’s truly multidisciplinary care.”

In addition to benefiting from a team approach to treatment, patients at the Orange Grove location will have access to novel clinical trials and some of the most advanced precision technology available.

Dr. Stea calls it one of the most exciting developments in his 26 years as a member of The University of Arizona Cancer Center.

“The Orange Grove facility is just beautiful,” he said. “We have 25-foot-high ceilings, natural light, convenient parking, and a terrific atmosphere. Our patients really seem to be responding well.”

It’s that response that provides the greatest reward for a physician. Those who have the inclination and disposition for such intensive physical and emotional care develop bonds with their patients that last a lifetime.

“You develop these personal connections with your patients,” Dr. Stea said. “You see them every day for six or seven weeks, then you see them when they come in for follow-ups. You see them so often that it strengthens your personal connection with them. You don’t feel attracted to this field if you don’t have it in you.”