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Cancer survivor has lots of things to worry about; secure messaging isn't one

  • Published
  • By Peter Holstein
  • Surgeon General Public Affairs Office
A serious health diagnosis can be a life shaking event, even for health professionals.  Treatment can be long and challenging both physically and mentally, but keeping in close communication with your health care team can help ease the stress of navigating this process.

One great way to stay connected with your medical team is to use TRICARE Online Patient Portal Secure Messaging. This tool is available to all Military Health System patients, and lets you send safe, private electronic messages to your health care team, including doctors, nurses and medical technicians.

Col. Maria Marcangelo, chief of the Clinical Operations Division at the Air Force Medical Operations Agency, knows the value of Secure Messaging first hand. Her job requires her to oversee use of Secure Messaging within the Air Force, but she also has experience using it as a patient.

“As a recent cancer survivor, Secure Messaging was definitely a contributor to my prompt diagnosis and treatment,” said Marcangelo. “My primary care team at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center used Secure Messaging to help me manage my healthcare needs.”

Late one evening in late December 2015, Marcangelo discovered two lumps in her breast.  As a nurse, she knew it could be a serious problem. Since it was the holiday season, she was concerned that it would be a while before she could get an appointment. She considered an urgent care visit, but discovered that they didn’t have the appropriate diagnostic equipment.

“I decided to take a leap of faith and sent a secure message to try to reach my primary care team,” said Marcangelo. “I’d had success using Secure Messaging in the past, so I requested an appointment as soon as one was available.”

It paid off. By 7:15 the following morning, Marcangelo had a response to her message, and an appointment for the next business day. After undergoing a mammogram and an ultrasound, her doctors determined that she needed to have a biopsy.

“To my relief, the radiologist performed the biopsy that same day,” said Marcangelo. “I am eternally grateful to Dr. Wiedenhoefer. He was very empathetic and helped ease some of my anxiety by performing every procedure I needed that day. I couldn’t have asked for a better doctor at that moment. I asked for his honest opinion regarding my prognosis, and he gave me a 50/50 chance that it was malignant.”

Marcangelo was told that her biopsy results would take seven to ten business days to become available. When she couldn’t wait any longer, she sent a secure message to her primary care team to ask about her biopsy result. The nurse on her primary care team wrote her back quickly to help her get in touch with the radiology team, which had been unsuccessfully trying to contact her.

“The radiologist told me I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” said Marcangelo. “And although it was an aggressive cancer, it would likely be more responsive to chemotherapy, and recent advances in treatment had shown improved response rates.”

Anyone who has undergone cancer treatment, or had someone close to them go through it, knows that it is a long, drawn out ordeal with dozens of appointments, tests, treatments, diagnostics and consultations.  It can be a whirlwind of unfamiliar doctors, specialists and nurses.  For many people, navigating a complex medical system is a major contributor to the stress of a managing a chronic medical condition or catastrophic diagnosis.  Secure Messaging can help make this process easier, by keeping you connected with your primary care team, even though you may not see them in person with great frequency.

“I was able to remain in contact with my PCM team using Secure Messaging throughout my treatment, even though most of my appointments were with my oncologist,” said Marcangelo. “As a cancer patient, I was highly susceptible to infections due to my weakened immune system. Secure Messaging allowed me to communicate my needs without going into the office, minimizing my risk for infections.”

Marcangelo was able to start treatment less than a month from when she first suspected she might have a problem. The experience gave her a renewed appreciation for her health care team and a determination to help others going through similar challenges get the best possible care.

“Although my cancer is in remission, I continue to communicate with my PCM team through Secure Messaging,” said Marcangelo. “I also schedule appointments, review lab and test results and request medication renewals.”

Patients can reduce unnecessary appointments and stress by communicating virtually and directly with their health care team. It minimizes time away from work and avoids the frustration of waiting on a phone line and playing phone tag to relay messages. 

“I am fortunate to oversee a program I believe in strongly.  Secure Messaging helps patients break down barriers to their health providers. No one who’s facing a life threatening health problem should have to spend hours on the phone or driving to an appointment, when the same thing can be accomplished in a few minutes electronically.” 

You can learn more about Secure Messaging and sign up for your own account at the AFMS website. Once you sign up, your provider team needs to accept you as their patient before you can communicate.