Surgeries, drugs and chemotherapy could be used to address the cancer cells above Aaron Atkins’ left eye. But they weren’t going to strengthen his resolve or raise his spirit.
Luckily for the 30-year-old Santa Monica resident, he had the UCLA Simms/Mann Center for Integrative Oncology.
Since being diagnosed with neurotropic melanoma more than three years ago, Atkins has regularly visited the center, which offers a variety of support services at little or no cost to cancer patients.
“Simms/Mann has been instrumental in getting my mind right,” he said.
The center has played such an integral role in Atkins’ battle that he and friends are donating half the proceeds from their T-shirt campaign, which wrapped up Aug. 1, to Simms/Mann.
And his financial support comes at a pivotal juncture for Simms/Mann, which serves about 2,400 patients each year with an annual budget just under $2 million. The center, which relies heavily on philanthropic support, is losing significant funding for the young adult programming that Atkins has accessed.
Whereas one treatment of chemotherapy can cost a patient’s family $10,000, the Simms/Mann center needs just $1,000 per patient to provide psychological and emotional support, according to center director Anne Coscarelli, a longtime Santa Monica resident.
Many of the center’s services are offered without fees to account for the financial burdens placed on cancer patients and their families, she said.
“You can see a psychologist or social worker for less than it costs you to park at UCLA,” Coscarelli said of the center’s services. “When you’re dealing with cancer, medicine is important but it isn’t enough.”
That’s a dynamic with which Atkins became familiar after doctors found cancer around his left eye.
He said he underwent surgery and numerous rounds of radiation and that “everything was good” until early 2014, when another lump was found in the same area. The discovery led to two more surgeries and brachytherapy, also known as internal radiation, followed by drug injections that caused hair loss and headaches and made him feel like he had the flu on and off for six months.
Earlier this year, a second recurrence and the proximity of the tumor to Atkins’ brain led surgeons to recommend complete removal of his left eye. He had surgery in mid-May, was released from the hospital in mid-June and recently returned to work as a recruiter for a consulting firm.
“As I’ve gone through this process, I’ve realized you have to sacrifice your independence,” said Atkins, who now wears an eye patch. “It’s been a lesson. It’s required a paradigm shift … It’s about understanding that this is a journey, that this is going to be with me the rest of my life.”
Atkins’ approach has come with the guidance of staffers at the Simms/Mann center, which offers “wrap-around” care services like psychiatry, spiritual care and nutrition counseling. One-on-one sessions with health and social service professionals take place in an environment that is meant to be different than that of a hospital.
“The center has been so important to Aaron in his ability to get through all of these really devastating circumstances that he’s been in,” Coscarelli said. “We help patients find ways … to manage the stressors and come out of this in a better place.”