Cancer. As someone who practiced surgery for more than 20 years, I can tell you there is no diagnosis my patients feared more than that one. Numerous encounters I had with patients and families over the years, helping them deal with this diagnosis and treatment, remain indelibly etched in my memory. One patient and family, in particular, remain part of my professional life to this day, as I continue to receive an annual gift when he and his family mark the anniversary (now 15 years!) of his successful surgery to remove stomach cancer. I look forward to receiving that gift each year — not so much for the gift itself — but rather for the reminder that cancer is an always treatable, and sometimes curable, disease.
A few months ago, one of our local papers ran an amazing story about cancer that I’d like to share with you in case you missed it. A man in his early sixties went to an area hospital (not one in the Lifespan system) because he’d become jaundiced. The hospital sent him to Boston for diagnostic testing — which revealed stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis with a five-year survival rate of just 1%. The patient was given a choice: receive palliative chemotherapy at their hospital, which would help his symptoms but would not cure the cancer, or go home to Rhode Island and participate in a clinical trial being conducted by Rhode Island Hospital and the Brown University Oncology Research Group. Clinical trials are never a sure thing — they are based on solid research but there is no guarantee that the treatment will be effective in every case. The man chose Rhode Island Hospital’s clinical trial, hoping to buy a few more months of life. But what happened was something that even his doctors said was miraculous. The clinical trial’s combination of drugs, followed by radiation, completely obliterated the tumor. No trace remained — even a year after the treatment ended. The patient was declared cancer free, thanks to treatment he had received right here at Lifespan in Rhode Island. Remarkable!
At Lifespan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, we are doing extraordinary things, all with the goal (as our advertising campaign says)“to bring patients’ lives back to ordinary.” We’ve spent much time and effort in recent years re-organizing our considerable resources in cancer research, diagnosis and treatment to make the most of all we have. A cornerstone of cutting-edge cancer treatment is multidisciplinary care (the quintessential example of medicine being a “team sport”) and we are leading the state in our development of multidisciplinary cancer clinics. For example, we have opened the Upper Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Clinic for the treatment of esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, liver and bile duct/gallbladder cancers, the Thoracic Multidisciplinary Clinic for the treatment of lung cancer, the Breast Multidisciplinary Clinic for the treatment of breast cancer, and our Genitourinary Multidisciplinary Clinic for prostate, bladder, kidney, and testicular cancers. More clinics will be opening soon focusing on head and neck cancer and gynecological malignancies.
Cancer takes a toll on patients, physically, mentally and emotionally, so it makes sense to create clinics that coordinate care in one setting — essentially bringing services to the patient rather than expecting the patient to discover on his own what services are available. These clinics are unique at Lifespan in Rhode Island and they offer screening and diagnosis; treatment that includes cutting-edge radiation oncology, advanced surgical techniques and high-tech imaging modalities in radiology; access to investigational therapies; clinical psychiatry; nutrition counseling and support groups.
I’m proud to say we have some of the world’s experts in all aspects of cancer treatment; surgical treatment, medical treatment (chemotherapy), diagnostic imaging and intervention, and radiation oncology. We also have some of the most advanced technology — particularly in radiation oncology — that is extremely precise, often resulting in fewer treatments and fewer side effects. For example, Rhode Island Hospital was the first in the nation to offer Accuboost, a distinctive technology that couples mammography with a highly focused beam of radiation. This allows radiation oncologists to precisely target just that area of the breast that is most at risk of harboring cancer cells while not damaging the surrounding tissue. Last year we added TrueBeam and Perfexion to our radiation capabilities — two of the most advanced technologies available today for treating tumors in the brain, spine, liver and prostate, among others.
The elusive “cure for cancer” is pursued daily at Lifespan and the story of the patient treated for pancreatic cancer illustrates the priceless value that research adds to our repertoire of cancer treatment options. Lifespan’s oncology clinical research department collaborates with the Brown University Oncology Group and conducts a variety of clinical trials; currently, they include trials of treatments for brain, breast, kidney, lung, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, head and neck cancers, and for leukemia and lymphoma. It is through trials such as these that quantum leaps in cancer treatment and survival are made. In fact, our physicians have developed treatments that have become the standards of care for esophageal, rectal, and stage III lung cancer. (As an aside, research is meticulous, labor-intensive and expensive, which is why philanthropic support of our cancer programs, particularly our research, is critical. More on this topic in the future.)
Last week, The Comprehensive Cancer Center underwent an accreditation visit by the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer. Over the course of two days, two physician surveyors evaluated our program against rigid standards for accreditation as an Integrated Network Cancer Program. While we are awaiting our official report, the survey team relayed that they found no deficiencies and that our program will receive several commendations. At the summation session held at the end of day 2, the surveyors said they were overwhelmed by the numerous best practice examples they encountered, and literally applauded the organization for having a “truly stellar” program — a rare event indeed from such regulatory authorities.
We have so much to offer our patients and such incredible expertise located here at Lifespan. However, our collective pursuit of excellence requires us to go further. Therefore, to better enhance and coordinate care for our patients we’ve begun an intensive effort to align the care we provide with national best practices, such as those developed through the National Cancer Institute Community Cancer Centers Program. Last night, leaders from across the system gathered to kick off an intensive planning process that will further enhance the care we deliver to our patients with cancer — a process we are referring to as the “Cancer Center Roadmap to Excellence.” Over the next few months, we plan to determine, and then implement, the additional steps we need to take to achieve our vision of a truly patient-centered, research-focused, high-quality, high-value, system-wide cancer program. When the process is complete, our extraordinary talent and capabilities, combined with our role as a research and academic partner of one of the nation’s top medical schools, will position us well in our quest to become a nationally recognized cancer treatment program right here at Lifespan, right here in Rhode Island.
I don’t know whether or not some cures are miraculous. I do know that we can set the stage for miracles to happen, by bringing together exceptional basic research and clinical trials, brilliant cancer specialists and highly talented staff, and organizing all our resources so that patients receive sophisticated, highly coordinated care. We can’t promise our patients miracles. What we can promise our patients, including those with cancer, is that we always do our utmost to fulfill our mission of Delivering health with care.
In the steadfast pursuit of excellence, I remain,
Timothy J. Babineau, MD
President, CEO of Lifespan