As the medical oncologist and associate deputy physician-in-chief of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Regional Care Network, Dr. Diane Reidy-Lagunes plays a key role in cancer care on Long Island. We talked with her about cancer, cures, Covid, the pandemic, and efforts to serve Long Islanders closer to home.
Are you from Long Island?
I am from Long Island. I was born and raised in Nesconset. I’m proud to work at MSK and have the opportunity to be back on Long Island and oversee the regional care network.
What is the regional care network and what is it on Long Island?
Many years ago, MSK decided we needed to bring our care closer to where our patients live and work. We developed regional care network sites. There are three on Long Island — Hauppauge, Uniondale, and Commack — three in New Jersey, and one in Westchester. The hope and expectation is we can provide care to our patients closer to home, to make it more convenient and eliminate the financial toxicity of having to take off a lot of time from work, providing childcare, and driving to the city. Over the years, we’ve developed new sites and tried to attend to patients’ needs by being where they are. We go to them, as opposed to assuming they will go to us.
What can you do at regional sites and when do patients need to go to Manhattan?
At our regional sites, patients can get chemotherapy and radiation therapy as well as blood labs and things they need. There are pharmacies. The only thing not available is surgery. The surgeons are there, but for the operative care itself, that’s pretty much still in Manhattan. In Commack, we have an interventional radiology suite. That means certain procedures that interventional radiologists do can be done on Long Island.
How big is your Long Island regional presence and is it changing?
Now we have 20% of our patient population, all the patients we care for, on Long Island. It’s a big number. But any patient can get their chemotherapy and radiation anywhere.
How has cancer care changed since the pandemic?
The world changed since the pandemic. Nowhere are we more aware of that than at a cancer center. Our patients tend to be older and have cancer. They’re the highest-risk population for getting severe symptoms from Covid if, God forbid, they are exposed. We have gone above and beyond to get proper protocols in place, to make it the safest place to go and be. The protocols of keeping our patients safe are so tight. We’ve learned what keeps our patients and employees safe.
Can you describe some protocols?
It’s universal masking for everyone. If anyone even has a sniffle, they’re immediately tested. We have labs on site, so we can get responses quickly. Anyone who goes into an operating room is tested beforehand. All our employees are required to be vaccinated.
How are you using telemedicine?
That’s critically helpful for our patients, particularly on Long Island, who live a distance from the city. We can care for many patients through telehealth in the comfort of their own home. There are still safety issues in terms of visitor policies. Having telehealth allows us to invite any family members who want to attend a meeting. They can come on the video, even if they’re at work.
Did people delay care due to the pandemic and are you seeing a surge in demand for care?
I think early on, there were delays, in March of last year and most of the spring. Thankfully, we think that delay is no longer the case. We want to encourage patients to go back to screening and getting cancer care.
What new tech/treatments are there or on the horizon?
Tremendous strides have been made, such as immunotherapy, medications that turn on your immune system to attack the cancer. It’s a drug given intravenously that turns on your immune system, particularly your T-cells, white cells fighting off the cancer. We have targeted treatments that allow us to treat patients based on the genetic dispositions of the cancer. Based on mutations in the cancer, we have new therapies targeting that.
What can people do to reduce their risk of getting cancer?
First and foremost, make sure you do the screening tests that save lives and prevent cancer. Colonoscopy for patients 45 and older. Mammograms and early detection are important. Going to see the dermatologist, making sure there’s no evidence of skin cancer or melanoma. And maintain a healthy lifestyle. Smoking is addictive, but going through smoking cessation programs is important. And eating. We know a lot of cancers today are associated with obesity.
Is MSK expanding, adding services or otherwise growing on Long Island?
Uniondale is a brand-new facility. We expanded our Commack facility in 2019 to be larger and we have the potential to expand Uniondale to be larger. I don’t think we plan on having another building. We’re continuing to see an increased number of patients. We’re bringing on doctors who have unique specialties that allow patients to get specialized care locally.
How crucial is it to fund and fight cancer – even as Covid-19 becomes such a key concern?
The pandemic has brought so much tragedy, but cancer continues to do the same. We have to keep to our mission, making sure we keep our eyes on the ball and keep going with research that we desperately need to do.
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