Palliative Care Provides Extra Layer Of Support In Serious Illness

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - It's no secret that cancer treatments often bring challenging side effects, both physical and emotional.

Sara and John Ratzenberger were barely through their honeymoon when her symptoms began. John says it started with a cough that was diagnosed as pneumonia.

The cough didn't go away and, six months later, surgery to remove a lemon-sized tumor revealed the startling news - Sara had stage 4 lung cancer.

It was July 23, 2010. Suddenly, the 31-year-old avid runner who never smoked was in an unexpected race against time.

"It was less about curing the disease than it was about treating it and prolonging her life and doing what we could to make her feel better," John said.

That's where the Stormont-Vail Cancer Center's palliative care program stepped in to help.

Program coordinator Robin Holthaus, RN/BSN/OCN, says palliative care provides an extra layer of support for patients with serious illness. The team includes doctors and nurses who serve as a central point in coordinating care, not just physical symptoms, but also emotional and spiritual needs.

Holthaus says the best possible quality of life is the goal of palliative care. Plus, she says, the team takes the time to have the difficult talks and answer the difficult questions.

In Sara's case, John says it was Robin, who, a year into Sara's treatment, noticed unusual side effects and insisted on an MRI that revealed cancer had spread to her brain. John says Sara was able to get radiation and had another year and a half with him after that.

It was time they used to travel and enjoy life.

Sara died November 8th at the age of 33. John credits the palliative care team for leaving him at peace with his memories.

"She was an amazing, amazing person," he said. "I got to see her not as a diagnosis or someone I gave care to - I got to see her as my wife and that's the important thing."

The Stormont-Vail Cancer Center's out-patient palliative care team is a partnership with Midland Care. Midland also has a community-based palliative care program for those who are not Stormont-Vail patients.