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Nutrition services offers patients personalized plans for treatment and recovery

Erika Connor
  Erika Connor

By Mignon Fogarty

When you consider who is saving lives at the Stanford Cancer Center, you might imagine a dashing young doctor or a savvy, dedicated nurse. Yet, many patients feel that Erika Connor, the Cancer Center's lone consulting nutritionist, played an equally vital role in their recovery. For Judie Weber, whose stage four colon cancer induced extreme weight loss, Connor's nutritional advice was crucial, “She did the best she could with the situation I was in, and I think it helped me live,” says Weber.

Caring Advice

Weber was taken not only by Connor's knowledgeable advice, but also by her gentle and supportive character. “Erika came in and there was an instant bonding between the two of us,” she says.

Weber had never experienced an eating disorder before, but now she was in trouble: The chemotherapy had induced serious gastrointestinal problems. “Even the thought of food made me throw up. I'd try to eat, and I'd just go throw up; and, of course, I had the diarrhea that goes along with it too,” she says.  Dehydrated and unable to keep food down, Weber (who had been slim to start with) lost 25 pounds.  Her nutrition problems were the worst of her unpleasant suite of symptoms and side effects, and she found it upsetting when her well-intended children begged her to eat, because she was simply unable to comply. She found comfort in the fact that Connor understood, and provided the constant, gentle support that she needed.

“She was such a rock for me, and gave me so much support,” Weber said.  “I was so desperate because I was so emaciated, but she never, ever, ever belittled me or said, ‘You’ve got to eat,’ or anything like that.”

During the times that Weber was able to eat, Connor was there to share in the success. Under Connor’s advice, Weber started drinking nutrient-dense, high-calorie milkshakes and began to recover: sometimes gaining up eight or nine pounds at a time before something would happen and she would be unable to eat again. Every time she would regain some weight, Connor would be happy to share in her excitement. When Weber had to visit the Cancer Center for chemotherapy, showing Connor her progress became a welcomed happy moment.  “It feels so good when I can be their cheerleader and celebrate their successes,” says Connor.

A Key to Successful Surgery

After seven rounds of chemotherapy, Weber was coming to the conclusion that she couldn't continue. The side effects had become intolerable. Yet, just as she was ready to give up, her tumor changed: what had previously been inoperable was now operable. The only problem was that Weber was too weak and emaciated to undergo surgery. She says, “At that point in time I could barely swallow one of those milkshakes; that's how bad I was.”

Again, her cancer team rallied and with the support of Connor, Weber went on total parenteral nutrition (TPN). “I gained about 10 pounds. It was all water, but it had nutrients in it, and the important thing was that I got the nutrients into my body,” she says. She was strong enough to undergo surgery, and miraculously, the surgeons were able to remove every trace of the cancer. “Erika even called me before I went in for surgery and said, 'I just want you to know that I'll be there for you.'” says Weber.

A Personalized Approach

Connor’s work as a nutritionist is especially important because nutrition for cancer patients can sometimes seem contrary to conventional wisdom. For example, Connor recognized that Weber’s condition restricted the range of foods she could eat, and tailored her approach accordingly, focusing on weight gain and keeping Weber on foods that she could keep down such as the sweet, nutrient-dense milkshakes with extra ice cream mixed in. “Chemotherapy distorts all of your taste buds and makes everything taste terrible, but sweet never seemed to get distorted,” says Weber.

Such choices might initially seem counter-intuitive, yet when trying to help cancer patients gain weight, they make perfect sense. “When it comes to the setting of diarrhea for instance, you really need to be careful about fruits and vegetables. Raw vegetables and acidic fruits are not better and can just exacerbate the problem,” says Connor. “One of the things that I try to instill in people is that we need to just get them through treatment as strong as possible, and as efficiently as possible.”

Of course not every cancer patients has gastrointestinal problems, and Connor is there for those patients too. “There is a patient population who can eat salads and do stir fries and all that stuff through the treatment process,” she says; but for patients like Weber who may need her the most, Connor always helps them remember that their first goal is to get through treatment.

Free Flexible Counseling

Nutritional counseling services such as those that Connor provides are rare in the outpatient world, but their benefits are significant. For people suffering from side effects of radiation therapy or chemotherapy due to treatment for head and neck, prostate, breast, pancreatic, colorectal, esophageal, and other forms of cancer, Connor's advice can make the difference between tolerating therapy and giving up.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the program is that it is free to all cancer patients; a situation made possible by donations to Cancer Concierge Services. The popularity of the program keeps Connor busy, and she often sees people every hour for 45 minute consultations.

In addition, Connor strives to be accessible to patients when they need her. "I try to schedule a consult on the same day the patient has another appointment, or arrange a phone consult if that is more convenient.  After the first consult, I usually leave it up to the patient for any needed follow-ups, unless I see the need to follow their progress, especially if someone is fragile and already having a hard time.  Every situation is different and I just try to be accommodating and helpful given the two days I have in the Cancer Center," she says.

Erika Connor takes consultations from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Thursdays. For an appointment, call Erika at 650-725-9461 or Cancer Concierge Services at 650-723-4268. Cancer Concierge Services is also happy to take donations to help keep nutritional counseling services free and increase the number of days per week that Connor is available to patients.

Note: Erika Connor was recently married, and former patients will know her as Erika Peter.

Posted: 10/26/06

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