Sister Barbara Glodowski was diagnosed with lymphoma in August 2016. Soon after her diagnosis, she began aggressive and grueling chemotherapy treatments to shrink the tumors that had spread throughout her body.
When her provider suggested she would benefit from genetic counseling to learn more about her disease and her family history, she agreed it would be worthwhile.
But Sister Glodowski, who is 75 and lives in Jerome, was still weak from all the treatments and was relying on others to transport her to appointments or to run errands twice each week. In addition to being a Benedictine sister, she is also an employee at St. Luke’s Jerome, where she works in pastoral care.
The ability to meet with a genetic counselor using telehealth technology was a game-changer for Sister Glodowski. Without telehealth, she would have had to travel to Boise for the appointment. Instead, she went to St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute Twin Falls and met with a genetic counselor who was located in Boise.
The process is similar to a video conference, and allows the genetic counselor and patient to see and hear each other and for the patient to view electronic presentation material. A certified assistant helps patients get oriented prior to the start of the session and then checks periodically to ensure there are no technical issues.
“It was wonderful,” Sister Glodowski said. “They had it all set up before I walked in. I saw her face and she saw mine.”
Someone with a family history of certain cancers is more likely to be diagnosed with the disease within their lifetime. That’s why genetic counseling is a valuable resource, even though only 5 percent to 10 percent of cancer diagnoses are associated with a hereditary cancer.
Genetic counseling provides a glance into the future by identifying those who are most at risk. Armed with the knowledge of any existing risk factors, there are options such as mastectomy or earlier ongoing cancer screenings to stay ahead of the disease.
“Learning the genetic makeup of a cancer patient, we can target those treatments much more than we could in the past,” said Diane Records, director of clinical support services at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute.
Sister Glodowski was aware that cancer was prevalent on one side of her family. Several of her mother’s siblings died of cancer, and she has lost numerous cousins because of the disease. She had been diligent about receiving screenings on a regular basis.
Even so, the lymphoma diagnosis was a surprise.
“The interesting thing to me is that I went to the physicals and screenings and did all that I could,” she said. “Lymphoma is sneaky and hard to diagnose.”
St. Luke’s began offering genetic counseling in Boise and now provides the service at six locations of St. Luke’s MSTI. Because of the telehealth component now offered at three of St. Luke’s more rural locations (Fruitland, Baker City and Twin Falls), more patients have access to genetic counseling. An estimated 40 percent of Idahoans live in rural areas, making it important for St. Luke’s to improve access to care for those who live further away from St. Luke’s MSTI locations.
A telehealth genetic counseling service was first offered in late 2011 at St. Luke’s MSTI Fruitland to test and refine the service on a gradual basis, Records said.
Results soon proved that the program would fill a need for residents in rural areas. Data collected during that three-month test period showed wait times decreased from 23 days to 16 days. Patients also had more ease in scheduling appointments because there were more days and hours available.
Records said between 1,000 and 1,200 patients receive genetic counseling at a St. Luke’s MSTI location each year and there are four genetic counselors on staff. Utilizing the telehealth service allows the counselors to see more patients and saves on travel time and related expenses.
The three-month assessment showed it saved $1,050 in mileage and nearly 14 hours in travel.
“It has been so successful that now we offer it weekly,” Records said.
Sister Glodowski is encouraging her cousins to participate in genetic counseling to learn more about their risk for cancer. Her last imaging test showed that the tumors had shrunk by 70 percent. She is optimistic her next scan will show continued success.
She is filled with gratitude when she thinks about her experience at St. Luke’s MSTI in Twin Falls. She said “the staff bent over backwards” to ensure she was comfortable and that the appointments worked for her schedule.
“The teamwork there is phenomenal,” Sister Glodowski said. “It is a healing place. It has been a good experience in a bad situation.”
Chereen Langrill is a former communications coordinator for St. Luke’s Health System