Victoria Loerzel, associate professor at the UCF College of Nursing, has been awarded $463,104 in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to improve cancer symptom management in older adults.

With the grant, which was issued by the NIH National Institute of Nursing Research, Loerzel will design, develop and test an interactive educational tool that will engage and prepare older adults who are being treated for cancer to make better self-care decisions at home. The tool will allow them to practice at-home symptom management with a character and real-life scenarios to visualize both good and bad outcomes based on their self-management choices. For example, if the character in the “game” is experiencing mild nausea from chemotherapy, the patient will have the option to choose how to manage it. They can decide to take medication, take a nap, watch TV and wait for it to pass, or do something else. Based on their answer, the nausea will either go away or get worse. After the “game” is played, the patient and their nurse will discuss the outcomes and decisions.

“It may sound simple, but a lot goes into decision-making for symptom self-management for older people,” Loerzel said. “They often don’t think about how their actions impact their symptoms.” Older adults are less likely to effectively manage chemotherapy side effects at home, placing them at greater risk for adverse events, such as dehydration, weight loss, low blood pressure and more. This results in reduced daily function and an increased chance of an unplanned hospitalization.

The project will be conducted in two phases over a nearly three-year period. For phase one of the project, the team will recruit and work with older adults at the cancer center at Orlando Health to understand their experience with chemotherapy induced nausea and illness. Phase two will be a clinical trial where the “game” will be piloted and tested in the outpatient ambulatory treatment center.

Once shown to be effective, Loerzel hopes this innovative educational tool will be widely used at the bedside to educate patients, improve symptom management at home, reduce severe symptoms, reduce unplanned hospital visits and ultimately, improve quality of life.

Co-investigators on the study are Dr. John Clochesy from the College of Nursing at the University of South Florida, Eileen Smith from E2i Creative Studio at the UCF Institute for Simulation and Training, Dr. Patricia Geddie from the UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health who will serve as research nurse, and UCF professor Dr. Xin Yan who will be the statistician.

Loerzel, who is an oncology certified nurse and has been a cancer nurse for more than 20 years, has focused much of her research on improving symptom management and quality of life for older adults with cancer. “Older adults, ages 65 and older, are the most common group to be diagnosed with cancer, but are the least researched,” she said. “Life stage, life experience and personal beliefs about illness should be considered for approaching symptom management and educating patients on how to care for themselves.”