After having to halt a crucial program due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is relaunching its volunteer driving service Road To Recovery (Camino A La Recuperación) in Los Angeles and Orange County. This program is designed to help patients get to their cancer treatments and appointments.
According to the American Cancer Society, men and women are at a higher risk for cancers associated with infectious agents such as the liver, stomach and cervix. In LA County, the Latinx community is the largest community the American Cancer Society serves. Cancer is the leading cause of mortality within the community, accounting for 20% of deaths.
Many unfortunate circumstances prevent individuals within the Latinx community from seeking treatment, such as socioeconomic status, system racism, access to healthcare and cultural values and beliefs. These factors play a major part in influencing the outcome and occurrence of cancer in the Latinx community. Road To Recovery ensures that patients never miss their treatments and appointments. They also ensure the safety and comfort of their patients and drivers.
American Cancer Society’s goal for this program is for patients to feel as comfortable as possible when traveling to their appointments and increase the survival rate among the Latino community. “Many patients in the community are not able to find a ride to their treatments, which are essential for them,” said Joan August, ACS Los Angeles Area Board Chair and Vice President at Cedars-Sinai. “We try to provide people and drivers within the community to speak the same language and understand the same cultural backgrounds. We find that is important to aid in their recovery as well.”
With cancer, patients’ immune systems are not as robust as the average person’s due to the treatments that the patients endure. So, for the safety of the patients, the American Cancer Society had to make the difficult decision to halt the program. “Now that we are more in the endemic stage than the pandemic stage, [American Cancer Society] thinks it is an excellent time to bring back a vital part of our recovery program for these patients,” said August. “This is not specific to Greater Los Angeles; this is a national program that has been a part of the American Cancer Society for a long time. Unfortunately, like many things again during Covid-19, we stopped it, so now is our time to relaunch it.”
“This year, an estimated 189,220 people will be diagnosed with cancer in California,” says Paula Mattinson in the latest press release for the American Cancer Society’s “Road To Recovery.”
“Road to Recovery” will be run through a mobile-friendly website to make it easier for volunteers to view and accept ride requests. The patients can access the program through a mobile-friendly website or an application that will provide them with real-time notifications.
Patients who wish to use the ride service do not need any insurance to be eligible to use it. Those that wish to become volunteer drivers need a driver’s license, a car they can operate, insurance and being fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The American Cancer Society needs more drivers to support the “Road To Recovery” program.
Community members interested in volunteering can visit cancer.org. Those seeking a ride can submit requests online. Those that lack the technology or prefer to connect with a person can call 1-800-227-2345 to schedule rides to treatment.
CALÓ NEWS recently interviewed Joan August, ACS Los Angeles Area Board Chair and Vice President at Cedars-Sinai, and Dan Witzling, Senior Executive Director American Cancer Society Greater Los Angeles Region, to learn more about this program and cancer within the Latinx community.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
SINCE THE PROGRAM IS RELAUNCHING, WHY DID THE PROGRAM INITIALLY END? WHY WAS IT DECIDED TO BRING THE PROGRAM BACK, ESPECIALLY DURING HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH?
AUGUST: During Covid-19, a lot of things were halted. Specifically, due to public health concerns and our drivers who were volunteers for this program, we felt it’s best to halt what we had because of the pandemic. So, we think now that we are more in the endemic stage than the pandemic stage, now is an excellent time to bring back a vital part of our recovery program for these patients. The fall seemed to be the right time. It just happened to be a coincidence that it was Hispanic Heritage Month, but it is really about the fact that we are looking for volunteers to re-engage with us. We also utilize some public transportation as well. The program in general, just to back up a little bit, is really about getting patients to the needed treatments that are vital to surviving, and this can be anywhere from a doctor’s visit, an infusion, their chemotherapy, it can be for their radiation oncology treatments, it can be for anything that is needed to be aided for their recovery. This is not specific to Greater Los Angeles; this is a national program that has been a part of the ACS for a long time. JUnfortunately, like many things again during Covid-19, we stopped it, so now is our time to relaunch it.
WHY IS THIS PROGRAM CRUCIAL FOR THE LATINX COMMUNITY IN THE LOS ANGELES AND ORANGE COUNTY AREAS?
AUGUST: We know that Los Angeles has many microcosms of communities, and it just so happened that the Latinx community is the largest that we serve. You can often not get rides in that community; as I said, their treatments are essential. So, we try to provide, for each community, we try to provide for the patients that are suffering from cancer. We also try to provide people within the community to speak the same language and understand the same cultural backgrounds. We find that is very important to aid in their recovery as well.
WITZLING: Overall, health equity is a significant issue for the American Cancer Society. We are looking at the Latinx community having a high incidents rate of cancer diagnosis, but the stage of cancer that people are getting is higher. For example, stage 3 and stage 4. So, if you can imagine, stage one and stage two cancer diagnosis is localized to a specific organ or part of the body where cancer exists. If somebody goes to get an early detection, the doctor says, “Oh, you have stage one breast cancer.” Then there are a lot more treatment options. Once cancer moves to a later stage, like stage three and beyond, which we see much more of in the Latinx and African-American communities, it’s a lot harder to treat, so we know that early detection saves lives. So we are trying to make the complete care and treatment process as comfortable and easy as possible in whatever way we can. Road to Recovery [exists] because we see that transportation is the second leading reason why people do not seek care, next only to finance, which we are also dealing with separately. Those are all the reasons why Road to Recovery is such an important program and why we have such a high urgency rate in trying to address the Latinx community; if we don’t reach them or help them with their care, they are only going to progress to the later stages and that is only going to increase mortality.
IS THE DEMOGRAPHIC FOR “ROAD TO RECOVERY” PATIENTS? MORE SPECIFICALLY, AGE RANGE AND ETHNIC BACKGROUND?
WITZLING: It’s a very diverse program. We seek to help all communities in whatever way works best. There is higher general care for white communities, non-Latinx and non-African Americans. I think there is an extra emphasis on trying to reach out more, which is why having more conversations with [CALÓ NEWS] is very important because we want to help increase awareness and that this is available and that there are a lot of different available options. There is a high use within the Latinx community for transportation services that the American Cancer Society provides. Still, not as high as we want it to be, so it doesn’t fully reflect the need in the LA County area we would like to address.
AUGUST: The age range is going to be young adults and up. We wouldn’t take children alone; they will need an adult to accompany them in the car of someone volunteering. So, I think one of the things we are working on, as Dan said, is our health equity, diversity and our inclusion for all of our communities is really about getting patients to their right treatments. They’re often within their communities, but that might not be the best place for their treatments. Not everybody offers, for instance, clinical trials, so to get the patient to the best treatment, we need to provide transportation to get them to these clinical trials. I happen to work in one of the hospitals in LA, and we very often thought the American Cancer Society and, through other means, provide rides to the patients that need clinical trials. Clinical trials are for later-stage diseases and are usually not in the community where the patient may live. So we must reach out to communities to get volunteer drivers to provide this necessary service.
HOW ARE VOLUNTEERS ACCEPTED TO BECOME DRIVERS? WHAT IS THE APPLICATION AND ACCEPTANCE PROCESS?
WITZLING: We want to make this as easy and comfortable as possible. There is an online application that can be available in English and Spanish. We have a dedicated staff partner general in LA County that can assist because we are at this vital stage and providing resources. So, an individual that wants to volunteer because they heard about the program they are interested in because maybe they wish to know a little bit more can reach out to us via email or online. They will then be connected with the staff partner, who will walk through. Some of the requirements are pretty basic. They include; having a driver’s license, proving that you have a vehicle that you can operate and covid requirements. We want our drivers to be vaccinated to protect cancer patients with health and compromised immune conditions. When you become a driver, we want them to know that it doesn’t mean hours of your life will be taken up. It is up to the volunteer to what extent they can provide a ride to treatments, maybe a ride to treatments and back (they don’t have to). So, it is up to them. Typically this happens during hours that hospitals and clinics are open. So, usually Monday through Friday during business hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., companies look for ways to volunteer during the week, which is easier for them. If companies are compensating them for their time versus a weekend activity. Overall, it is a very positive process. We haven’t heard of any difficulties from people once they get into the system and stick around. Their relationships with the patients they help and the organization create a wholesome experience.
AUGUST: We had a student the other day who said she was leading an organization to get a group of students to volunteer once a month to drive somebody to their treatments. So we have community organizations involved, including individuals and quite a few seniors who are also involved. Because they have the time and it is something they want to do now, they can go back to their community and help patients and people they know are going through these treatments. We get people from all areas and we welcome them. There is some online training and it is a self-tutorial. It is a national program that has been highly successful.
IS ANYONE ABLE TO BE A DRIVER AND PICK UP PATIENTS?
WITZLING: 18-84 years old and anything in between that. We want our drivers to be vaccinated against Covid-19, which is the main thing. Everything else is really what you would need to drive in the United States; a driver’s license, insurance. We do background checks and essential things. People use their cars; we do not provide any vehicles. It is not Uber or Lyft; we don’t have any cleanliness regulations. We want people to be as comfortable as possible. Any type of vehicle is fine.
WHO IS ELIGIBLE TO BE PICKED UP BY THE DRIVERS? DO THEY HAVE TO HAVE A CERTAIN INSURANCE OR INSURANCE AT ALL?
AUGUST AND WITZLING: No!
AUGUST: The answer is no. This is not an insurance-based program. It may be if a patient needs to get to a doctor, clinic, hospital, or whatever. Indeed, they are not calling us if it is an emergency they are not calling us they are calling 9-1-1. This is the type of service where we do not ask the insurance question. We just ask where they need to go and will provide a volunteer driver to take them to their treatments and back home again.
DOES ROAD TO RECOVERY WORK WITH SPECIFIC CLINICS? OR DO YOU GUYS WORK INDEPENDENTLY AND GO TO ANY CLINIC?
AUGUST: We will go anywhere. If a patient in L.A. says they need to go to Bakersfield, I’m not sure we will drive the person to Bakersfield, but anywhere in the Greater Los Angeles area. We don’t work with specific clinics. However, we make it known to clinics, hospitals and doctor’s offices that the American Cancer Society is excellent about letting anybody who treats cancer patients know about the various available resources. So we will get calls from several of these places because they are looking for a driver for a patient that doesn’t have a means of transportation. So we will get calls from them, but we don’t work specifically for any clinic. It is open to whoever is providing cancer care.
WHEN DO YOU THINK THE PROGRAM WILL BE RELAUNCHED? IS IT ALREADY RELAUNCHED, OR IS A SET A DATE FOR LAUNCH?
WITZLING: We are recruiting more drivers right now. We need the minimum number to be able to provide the service that we are offering. We offer other public transportations but Road To Recovery we hope to launch in the next few weeks as quickly as possible. Get some more drivers, not necessarily recruited but through the immigration process, to get started. We expect it to get up and running by the end of the month or into early October.
WHAT IS HOPED FOR IN THE FUTURE OF THE ROAD TO RECOVERY PROGRAM?
AUGUST: We did have to halt it. Being a health care provider in Los Angeles, getting patients for their needed treatments became challenging. We had to try and get them any way we could because this is a matter for many of these people, life and death. So, we did whatever we could during the pandemic. Many people stopped coming into screenings and coming in for treatments, which was very detrimental. So, we hope that we will relaunch this and that the communities and the individuals will step and volunteer. Even if it is one drive a month, we are looking for volunteers to help provide these life-threatening treatments and transportation. Without them, the cost to people in their lives, so anybody and everybody across the greater Los Angeles area are calling for people to let us know they will volunteer to help.
WITZLING: We do not want cancer patients not surviving due to access, and care is our bottom line. It is essential for the Latinx community to do everything we can. We have volunteer rides to treatments; we have partnerships with public transportation. With a minimal basis, we have other ways we can help out. We have lodging services, temporary, as needed. We do not want barriers to exist for people and their cancer journey, so anything we can do, and we need more people to help out and make it happen so that everybody lives a high-quality life.
AUGUST: We are restarting a program we never thought would be put on hold and sometimes it is tough to continue a program and get everybody re-engaged. We also want to reassure the patients that they can get access that can aid their recovery. The American Cancer Society is all about saving lives, so we must find the means for these patients to get the necessary care.