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A hidden gem: Milwaukee VA cancer care ranks among the best

Veteran rings bell flanked by cancer care therapists
Vietnam Veteran John Scott rings the bell, signifying his final radiation treatment at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center for his prostate cancer. With him are, from left, radiation therapists Amber Ellerson and Dylan Shaffer, along with medical support assistant Suan Lobdell.

John Scott gets emotional when he talks about two things: His fellow soldiers who didn’t make it home from Vietnam, and the care he received for his prostate cancer at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

“It was wonderful … the treatment and care that I received,” he said, noting he is now cancer free. “I feel great. You would never know that I had cancer.”

Scott, 77, of Kenosha, served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He was part of a scout reconnaissance platoon for six months before becoming a door gunner on helicopters.

Like many Veterans, he didn’t seek out VA health care until later in life, when he needed hearing aids. But when he signed up for care, he learned he qualified for much more due to his service.

“I thought it was wonderful,” he said of initiation into VA care. “It set the tone for what I feel has been … a positive experience.”

He was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in 2020 and was sent to the Milwaukee VA Medical Center for treatment. He had never been to the Milwaukee campus, as his previous VA appointments were in North Chicago, Ill.

Having just been diagnosed with cancer and being sent to a large, unfamiliar hospital, Scott was understandably apprehensive, and a little scared. But those feelings went away after he got to the radiation oncology department.

“Everyone was very, very good. They treated me with respect and understanding,” he said, noting that his care team was very sensitive to the somewhat-embarrassing side effects that can accompany prostate cancer treatment. “They made a world of difference in the balance of my treatments.”

In June 2022, after 28 treatments, Scott happily rang the bell in the department that signals completion of treatment. He did so alongside radiation therapists Amber Ellerson and Dylan Shaffer, whom he praised for their empathy.

“It all went very smoothly,” he said, noting his PSA is now zero. “There’s nothing negative I can say about the entire experience.”

A hidden gem

Cancer care at the Milwaukee VA is something of a hidden gem. While private hospitals tout their cancer centers through marketing, impressive buildings and endorsements, VA’s approach is much more subdued.

“We don’t have the shiny letters on the outside of the building that say ‘cancer center,’ but what we provide here is cancer-centric care with a multi-disciplinary approach as good as any building with shiny letters provides,” said Dr. Natalya Morrow, chief therapeutic medical physicist at the Milwaukee VA.

“It’s important for people to understand that cancer care at the VA is high quality and, quite honestly, maybe better than something you would get in the community,” said Dr. Adam Currey, Milwaukee VA physician and head of the medical center’s cancer committee.

And that’s not just blowing smoke; it’s backed up by some impressive credentials, including accreditation by the American Society for Radiation Oncology and the Commission on Cancer.

The latter is especially impressive as the Commission on Cancer recently tightened its requirements for accreditation, according to Mohammad Talpur, cancer registrar for the Milwaukee VA.

“They’re making the standards more difficult,” he said. “About 10 years ago, we had 109 VA hospitals that were accredited by the Commission on Cancer. … Right now, only about 34 are accredited.”

What makes Milwaukee VA’s cancer care stand out? Currey noted a few things:

  • Participation by Veterans in clinical trials and having a clinical research program.
  • Continued support of Veterans after their cancer treatments.
  • Contributing to national clinical trials, so much so that Milwaukee often receives authorship credit on published studies.
  • Partnership with the Medical College of Wisconsin, which expands the Milwaukee VA’s connection with the best doctors and latest research.
  • Providing cutting-edge treatment, including a new radiation oncology department that not only features the latest technology but also was designed with the patient in mind.
  • A multidisciplinary approach that goes beyond the surgeon or physician to include dietitians, audiologists, speech therapists and others.

‘A team sport’

“Cancer treatment is a team sport,” Currey said. “There are not many cancers where one type of doctor is treating the cancer. … All of that is under one roof in the VA, and we can coordinate that care more effectively and share information and resources more effectively.”

Dr. Elizabeth Gore, section chief for radiation oncology at the Milwaukee VA, said the new radiation oncology department “expands the new techniques and technology we can offer. … It’s really taken our services to another level. The technology allows us to do more specialized treatments, and for Veterans, it can decrease the number of treatments needed while improving the effectiveness of the treatments.”

But it’s more than just new machines and technology, Morrow said.

“We are mindful of the Veterans’ experiences as they travel through the department,” she said. “It is welcoming. It is a calming experience.

“Cancer is a heavy diagnosis to have … so having an environment that possibly reduces some of the stress and anxiety is important.”

Gore agreed, saying the Milwaukee VA’s cancer care is a great combination of medical expertise, high-tech treatment options and caring doctors, technicians and other staff.

“All these things are critically important,” she said. “Everyone has really stepped up. I can’t say enough about our entire team. Our therapists are amazing; they are sensitive to the needs of the patients and really develop relationships with them.

“Veterans can get their care outside the VA system … and sometimes they think they’re not going to get the best care at VA, and that’s unfortunate.” Gore said. “We have a good, comprehensive program. We really do have their best interest in mind and the multidisciplinary teams and expertise to provide the best care.”

Grateful for his care

Scott certainly attests to that. On the day of his last treatment, he brought bags of Ghiradelli chocolates for all who helped him on his journey.

“It was something I could do to show my gratitude … and let them know that I really did appreciate everything they did for me,” he said.

“My anxiety was dissolved after my first treatments. They were sensitive, understood my situation and were ready to do whatever they had to to get me through it … with nothing but kindness and understanding.”

Scott and his partner Carole, who also is a cancer survivor, know how fragile life can be. So they have become world travelers, visiting more than 60 countries in the past 23 years and vowing to experience life to the fullest.

“That’s one of the therapeutic decisions we made — to always have something to look forward to,” he said.

In addition, Scott went on his first Stars and Stripes Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in April, visiting the war memorials and remembering his comrades who didn’t make it home from Vietnam.

But it was the homecoming that made Scott cry the most. His three young grandsons were there, wearing T-shirts that read: “Proud grandson of a Vietnam vet.”

“I lost it,” he said, choking back tears.

And thanks to his cancer treatments at the Milwaukee VA, Scott can keep on traveling.

“A lot of people ask me about getting my care through VA, saying they hear a lot of bad things about it,” he said. “My care has been positive over the past 15 years.”

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