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Published on March 09, 2021

Getting a Lyft to cancer treatment

Cancer Transportation

Patients with cancer face many obstacles when they undergo treatment. Getting there is one of them.

“There have been instances of people riding bicycles to the hospital, instances of people walking to the hospital. This is critical,” said Susan Chaityn Lebovits, executive director and co-founder of Boston Cancer Support, which, among other programs, helps cancer treatment centers offer free transportation for patients through the Lyft ride sharing app.

One of Boston Cancer Support’s partners is Cape Cod Healthcare, which operates the Clark Cancer Center in Falmouth and the Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center in Hyannis. This year, Cape Cod Healthcare gave Boston Cancer Support a $20,000 dedicated grant under its Community Benefits initiative. That money will return to Cape Cod as subsidies for Lyft rides for qualifying cancer patients being treated at the Falmouth and Hyannis facilities, Chaityn Lebovits said.

“It provides peace of mind for patients and families on the Cape and that the hospital really cares about their wellbeing; not just physically but emotionally as well,” she said. 

Last year, the program provided vouchers for 631 Lyft rides, according to Katherine Michaud, executive director of Cape Cod Healthcare’s Oncology Department. The figure is down, slightly, from 2019, when the program provided 673 rides, and that is because of the increased use of telehealth appointments during the pandemic, she said.

Access to transportation has been identified as one of the “social determinants of health” -- the sociological issues that affect whether a person can practice healthy habits or easily access healthcare. These include practical things such as transportation difficulties, lack of nearby supermarkets, discrimination, problems with language or literacy, unsafe housing and lack of neighborhood parks or recreation facilities.

Some patients being treated for cancer don’t have friends or family who can help with regular rides to chemotherapy or radiation, or have easy access to public transportation. And, a trip arranged through a ride-sharing app from Chatham to Hyannis, for example, could be $75, depending on the time of day.

Boston Cancer Support, which has a partnership with Lyft, tracks each hospital’s bank of money and handles the administration of the system, Lebovits said. Each hospital, however, creates its own system for how patients qualify.

Cape Cod Healthcare values the program and tries to use it only for patients who have no other options, said Michaud. These are usually patients who healthcare providers or cancer center staff refer to oncology social workers.

“Our social workers are really key,” Michaud said. “They are assessing people for any kind of barriers to accessing care. If someone has an issue with transportation, they might have other issues as well.”

Transportation is just one piece of Boston Cancer Support, but it was how things started. Chaityn Lebovits is a former correspondent for The Boston Globe, and communications specialist for Boston University’s Office of Sustainability. She was on staff at Brandeis University when a friend, Randi Friedman, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. When Chaityn Lebovits couldn’t find a one-stop resource for cancer-support services, she started building a website herself and offered access to area hospital social workers to share with their patients. A year later, after learning that lack of transportation to medical treatments was one of the biggest barriers for patient recovery, she and Beth Freeman, a real estate professional and cancer survivor, went to Lyft to discuss a partnership.

The statewide site now offers information for patients with cancer and their families, including, besides transportation, resources for financial aid, clinical trials, free or subsidized lodging, and support groups. Boston Cancer Support also runs CancerCollaborative, offering educational and networking opportunities for professionals, and the Randi Friedman Wellness Program that subsidizes integrative therapies such as yoga and meditation for patients with cancer.

But there’s no question that transportation remains critical to the mission, especially in areas like the Cape, where public transportation is spotty.

“One of the social workers there shared that there was a patient -- and I’m sure many patients -- but one in particular who was going to give up treatment because they couldn’t get there,” Chaityn Lebovits said. “Because of this program, they were able to finish their treatment.”