Five to 10 years ago, new breakthroughs in cancer diagnosis and treatments began to emerge from the ability to track specific cancers to a patient’s genetic makeup, especially in breast and colon cancer.

Amy Stoddard came to Milwaukee and joined Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Cancer Center three years ago specifically because they offered patients an interdisciplinary approach to cancer diagnosis and care. She offers cancer patients both genetic counseling and genetic testing.

Stoddard explains that genetic testing and counseling is a part of the movement toward what is termed “precision medicine,” the ability to research disease treatments based upon certain biomarkers for disease. Her role on the interdisciplinary cancer team has two key functions. First, she provides genetic counseling to those who need more background in the information that genetic testing provides and how it can help them decide among treatment options. Second, she works with patients with a simple blood or saliva test and helps interpret the results.

Between 5 and 10 percent of all cancers are hereditary or can be traced to genetic mutations. The genetic test itself is relatively simple, but Stoddard explains that through genetic counseling, one can track family history for the disease, which helps patients both select treatment options and inform their family members about potential risks of cancer.

“Most people want to understand if they have a genetic mutation that has caused their cancer and they want to know if they are at risk for developing other kinds of cancers because of their families,” said Stoddard. “They want to understand the options available for their treatment, but they also want their families to know and to understand potential hereditary risks for cancer.”

At Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Cancer Center, radiation oncologist Dr. Craig Schulz explains how interdisciplinary cancer teams review and collect data that then informs the use of innovative technologies and therapies to target specific kinds of cancer cells.

According to Dr. Schulz, initiatives to help eliminate unwarranted variation in care delivery, improve data collection and share new techniques and technologies coming out of multidisciplinary tumor conferences gives Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Cancer Center a competitive edge in the Milwaukee area.

“This multidisciplinary team approach . . . isn’t being done at any other cancer center in Milwaukee,” Dr. Schulz said. “It isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to practice because of the amount of time each member spends together discussing a patient’s treatment, then the time in our clinic together with a patient, so we might see just three patients in a several-hour period. But the team goes to the patient in our clinic, sometimes several of us at a time, to discuss treatment options with them and their families instead of having the patient have multiple appointments in multiple facilities with specialists all over town. When they leave our clinic, they are so very happy and appreciative. It’s a pretty good feeling for all of us.”

“When we can shoot a laser beam at a 2mm cancer tumor without destroying the healthy cells around it,” Dr. Schulz said, “that’s about as precise as you can get. We are taking high-tech innovations and bringing them to our cancer practice. These include new drugs that are really a “lock and key” in that they successfully target very specific cancer cells. Surprisingly, these drugs are flowing out of our research and development systems rapidly, and at some point, you will have specific drugs that will be designed for specific tumors.

“Our patients are spectacular. They give us much joy, and sometimes sorrow. They are certainly a huge inspiration in what we see they are up against and in what we can do to help them through it. In oncology, we know we can’t save everybody, but if we can help them get to that next birthday party or anniversary, their goal, which becomes our goal, then we celebrate these moments as wins because they are.”