Local cancer center making big strides

Published 6:34 pm Wednesday, April 4, 2007

By Staff
The word alone strikes fear. But the diagnosis doesn’t have to mean a death sentence as many patients of Washington’s Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center are finding out.
It’s been just over a year since the center opened for business near Beaufort County Hospital and already it’s made big headlines. Before its first birthday the ground was broken on a new radiation oncology center. When complete this summer, it will mean local patients won’t have to drive to New Bern or Greenville for treatment that can bring cancer under control.
Just last week, another major development was announced. The Shepard center was one of seven sites selected by the Cancer Trials Support Unit of the National Cancer Institute for inclusion in a cancer drug trials program.
Nearly 30 hospitals applied for the program, which had been limited to just 44 U.S. hospitals since 2005. Among the seven that were picked were a Veterans Administration facility in Washington, D.C., and a network of suburban clinics in Boston. An Indianapolis hospital was one of the other sites as were Fort Worth, Texas., Rock Hill, S.C., and Columbia, Md.
What the decision means is local doctors can offer local patients a chance to use cutting-edge drugs in the treatment of their cancers. It comes down to choice. Patients may chose to participate in the clinical trials. They don’t have to; they can go with more traditional methods. The local doctors can have the alternatives of participating in a certain trial or letting it pass by.
Until now, local doctors and patients didn’t have all the choices they have now. The Shepard center could and did participate in some clinical trials, if they were sponsored by either a drug company or a larger teaching hospital like Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville. But the center wasn’t calling the shots.
That doesn’t mean the Shepard center will sever all ties with PCMH or Duke Medical Center. Far from it. It can still participate in some of the drug trials with those hospitals. PCMH personnel are still going to be involved in the new oncology center. The inclusion in the National Cancer Center program just gives local professionals more freedom to make the choices that best fit the needs of local patients.
At present, the Shepard center is participating in 20 clinical trials through programs by drug companies, PCMH and Duke Medical Center. Now, with the approval of the National Cancer Institute, that figure could easily double, Crews said. New trials could be available at the local center in a matter of weeks, and as many as 60 trials are offered through the Cancer Trials Support Unit program.
By participating in clinical trials, patients get access to new treatments that are not available to the general population. The results of the studies may help other people in the future. And medicine has always been a science in which doctors continue to learn.
The breast cancer drug Herceptin was part of a recent clinical trial. Until it was FDA approved, doctors could not prescribe it on their own unless patients were involved in the clinical trial. The trial, in which the Shepard center participated, showed Herceptin in combination with chemotherapy not only battled the cancer but reduced the risk of recurrence by 50 percent in patients where the disease was detected early.
The staff and management of the Shepard center deserve our thanks. It is hoped that none of us will ever require the services they offer, but it’s nice to know the services are there.