Texas Oncology-Texas’ 2 decades advance cancer care

Published on Sunday, 20 July 2014 22:50 - Written by Faith Harper, fharper@tylerpaper.com

Cancer survivor Randy Childress joked that the disease was a great weight loss program when he was sick in the late ’90s, but 20 years of medical advances have continually improved the quality of life for survivors of the disease.

The 54-year-old general partner with Edward Jones Investments was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After surgery, he went through radiation treatments every day for about 10 weeks at Texas Oncology-Tyler. The treatments covered his abdomen, leaving his stomach feeling mushy, and the after-effects lingered for several years.

“It was a great weight-loss program,” he joked. “I don’t recommend it, but it works well.”

The Tyler oncology center was fairly new then, after opening its doors in 1994, and Childress said he was thankful to get treatment locally instead of having to drive to Houston.

“To (the doctors’) credit and staff, they made a very uncomfortable situation as comfortable as possible,” he said. “It wasn’t fun, but we were fortunate they caught it relatively early. The type of cancer I had is relatively curable if you catch it early.”

Texas Oncology-Tyler will celebrate 20 years in August. The center and its doctors stay on the cutting edge of research and technology, and have celebrated a long list of breakthroughs and firsts.

Dr. Mark Saunders, Childress’ radiation oncologist and a founding doctor at the center, said the driving force behind many of the breakthroughs in radiation is because of technology.

He said new machines can better track the location of a tumor and its components and they can sense how deep to treat, pushing radiation all the way through the body.

“It allows us to better make sure we are treating what we want to treat, and by doing so, we can take those cancers at higher doses with less side effects than we used to with lower doses, because we are more sure of what we are treating,” he said.

Implants that can be inserted into a tumor or area of the body also have been developed to more effectively treat certain types of cancer, and the new advances have not only helped treat cancer more effectively but may come with fewer side effects or long-term damage to other tissues.

“That’s where I think we have made some of the biggest advances, because with the new technology, the side effects aren’t what they used to be,” Saunders said.

The cancer center is on the cutting edge of research and one of the few Phase 1 testing facilities for new drugs not yet approved by the FDA in the country.

There are three levels of centers that test up-and-coming drugs on patients, with Phase 1 getting the drugs first, and in some cases, for the first trials on humans, said Dr. Donald Richards, an oncologist, hematologist and founding physician at Tyler Oncology, who heads the center’s new drug trial program.

Tyler is the top Phase 1 center in US Oncology, the 12-hospital network that includes Tyler’s facility, making it one of the top research centers in the nation.

“Some of the drugs we have tested are now FDA approved,” Richards said. “Several kidney cancer drugs were in our hands first, and our patients had availability of them for years. I have (a patient) on a drug for leukemia. She has been on it for two or three years, and it’s just now being FDA approved.”

New drugs are coming out rapidly because researchers’ knowledge of cancer and how it affects the body has gotten much better, which has sparked more effective treatments, Richards said.

“When I was in school, they were dragging plants out of the Amazon and testing them against tumor cells,” he said. “There was no rational development because we didn’t have the knowledge, but now we understand the cancer genome much more effectively. We understand how cancer signals through different pathways. We understand the immune system, so now we can make really rational decisions on where to target cancer that we didn’t know before.”

Some of the potential treatments on the horizon include drugs that work with the immune system to turn back on receptors, or checkpoints, that the cancer cells deactivate. Researchers also are analyzing data accumulated on cancer mutations and stem cells present within cancer cells.

The drugs trials Texas Oncology-Tyler participates in are generally for specific cancers and not all of them are a success, but Richards said it gives patients options where they would be without at other centers.

“People are willing to go out there and help with the development of these drugs,” he said. “Very few people aren’t interested in at least trying these, and the thing I hear a lot is, ‘Well if it doesn’t help me, it may help someone else.’”

The screenings that detect cancer also have improved dramatically.

Former Mayor Barbara Bass said she faithfully got her annual mammogram, but when she came in 2007, she used a new digital machine.

The new machine caught her breast cancer while it was still in stage one.

“With the old machinery it might have been four or five years before it was caught,” she said.

Mrs. Bass said she was not the only one who got a call back that year, and at least three of her friends also were notified of their new baseline readings. Not all of them ended up with cancer, but a few had cancer in stages two and three that went previously undetected.

The entire outlook of the disease and its curability has changed dramatically since she was young.

“When I was growing up, you didn’t hear about people having cancer …” she said. “You knew if someone had cancer, it was a death sentence and you didn’t talk about it … but now because of the technology and advances in research when you hear someone has cancer, you don’t have that fear that it will be bad. Instead, you go in now with the expectation that it will be OK.”