Cancer Services, Inc: Addressing Cancer Challenges Through Collaboration

May 2021 Vol 12, No 5



It is no secret that a cancer diagnosis brings with it a whole host of challenges: from before diagnosis, throughout the duration of treatment, and into long-term survivorship or end-of-life care. While many organizations are built to help patients address these challenges, Tara C. O’Brien, MBA, CEO of Cancer Services, Inc, says that having a local focus (without a lot of red tape) can help organizations to better address a broader array of those challenges. However, that simply cannot be done without strong partnerships, she said.

The mission of Cancer Services, a nonprofit based in Winston-Salem, NC, is “enhancing health, life, and survivorship for anyone facing any type of cancer at any point in their life.” And according to Ms O’Brien, as long as they can help to enhance any of these aspects of a survivor’s life, they will certainly try, or they will point them in the direction of an organization that can better address that particular need.

At the AONN+ 11th Annual Navigation & Survivorship Conference, Ms O’Brien discussed some of the achievements of her agency, as well as the underlying collaborations behind them.

About Cancer Services

Cancer Services aims to ensure access to care and treatment support throughout the cancer journey and—through community outreach—to promote risk reduction and earlier diagnoses to increase survivorship and decrease mortality. “I can list all kinds of services that we do, but our real approach is: we wouldn’t rule anything out as long as we know that it’s going to be enhancing health, life, and survivorship for individuals facing any type of cancer,” she said.

But importantly, providing comprehensive emotional, physical, and financial support to people facing cancer requires flexibility.

“Because we’re a small, local nonprofit, and we have such great collaboration with the hospitals, if there’s a need, there’s no reason that we can’t immediately pivot and try to meet that need,” she explained. “By being able to pivot quickly, we were able to have tremendous continuity this year with COVID challenges, but it’s also something that we’re able to do constantly by not having a lot of bureaucracy.”

Cancer Services has not closed during the pandemic, and even with an increase in demand from cancer survivors, they were able to meet those needs. Two-thirds of their staff began working remotely, while one-third remained onsite to provide nutritional supplements, medical supplies, home health equipment, and similar necessities. “We were actually able to develop new programs. The silver lining in our outreach and survivorship programs was that suddenly we were providing virtual support groups, yoga classes, nutrition series, etc, and people who had never participated before were suddenly participating,” she said. “They felt safe; maybe it was because of social isolation, but it was also more accessible. So even after whatever ‘normal’ we return to, we will continue to provide a wide range of virtual outreach services, because we’ve learned through this process.”

She noted that local organizations similar to Cancer Services do exist nationwide, but they vary widely in the types of services they provide. She pointed out the importance of focusing on local needs and cultures to be most effective.

Keeping the Focus on Collaboration

Ms O’Brien repeatedly stressed the importance of essential partnerships. “I think we’re all aware that people tend to use certain verbiage, but these practices are not actually in place on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “But with us, it really is critical. There’s no better way to make sure that we’re reaching the populations that we need to be reaching than by partnering with both of the local cancer centers.”

It is written in the bylaws of Cancer Services that their board of directors will have representation from physicians from both of the local cancer centers. “We also make sure that we have a balance, because there are 2 medical systems in our community,” she added. “There could be opportunity for competition, but instead we try to make sure that we constantly approach things from a collaborative perspective.”

These partnerships can offer patients better access to patient assistance programs and copay assistance for treatments; larger, more established support groups; and stronger social networks (rather than holding separate celebrations, the local organizations throw 1 big celebration for National Cancer Survivors Day), all while avoiding duplication of services.

Through these partnerships, as well as through the hard work of their small team of staff and hundreds of volunteers, Cancer Services has been able to provide millions of dollars in aid to people in need.

“Many, many years ago, our total financial assistance budget was about $300,000, and that was for a 4-county area. And now, because of our partnerships, so far this year we’ve helped secure over $70 million for patients,” she said. “Obviously that’s not something a small nonprofit could do. But because of these partnerships, there’s an actual dollar figure that you can put toward the value of working together. And that, in turn, reduces the financial toxicity of cancer treatment.”

She added that she and her colleagues are careful not to say they are providing medical care. “We truly are a support facility,” she said. “I don’t have a single registered nurse on staff; we’re providing support to the medical team that patients are working with.”

Staying Accountable to the Community

According to Ms O’Brien, these crucial relationships cannot exist without mutual trust. One of the ways her organization establishes that trust and shows that they are worthy of support and partnership is by demonstrating stewardship and responsibility over their own resources.

In 2019, 93% of their expenses were spent on direct services, 4% was spent on support services (ie, management), and 3% was spent on fundraising; 23% of their revenue came from fundraising, 46% from contributions, 9% from grants, and 22% from the United Way.

“Nationally, the recommendation for nonprofits is to spend at least 75% of their budget on direct services. So we’re certainly well ahead of that recommendation, and we’re very passionate about that,” she said. “We’d also love to be a resource for you all if there’s something that you want to be able to execute or expand on within your community cancer services. I’ve been with the organization for 30 years, so I’m incredibly passionate about our work, about community collaborations, and about working with local nonprofits to see what we can accomplish together.”

Last modified: August 10, 2023

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