April 11, 1997

Vanderbilt Cancer Center offers ray of hope to many

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Cancer center patient Karen Stroup talks with Dr. Harold Moses, director of the Vanderbit Cancer Center, at a reception last week

Vanderbilt Cancer Center offers ray of hope to many

That's how the Rev. Karen Stroup explains her decision to participate in clinical trials of new cancer treatments.

Coming to a cancer center that offers the very latest in cancer therapies was the luck of the draw for Stroup when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. She was a student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, so coming to the Vanderbilt Cancer Center (VCC) was a practical matter, she says.

But three years later, Stroup says she now thinks "someone was watching out for me."

"I really believe that if I hadn't been seen at the Vanderbilt Cancer Center, I wouldn't be here today," Stroup told a group of community and business leaders gathered at Vanderbilt last week to hear about new frontiers of cancer research and treatment.

The luncheon was hosted by Orrin Ingram, co-president of Ingram Industries and a member of the VCC Board of Overseers. The goal: to raise community awareness about the importance of basic and clinical cancer research as well as about the vital resource the Nashville community has in the Vanderbilt Cancer Center.

Stroup's cancer has spread to her lungs, a stage for which there is no known cure. But after undergoing standard chemotherapy, participating in two clinical trials of the cancer drug Taxol and now having hormone therapy, she is doing well.

She completed her Ph.D. last May and landed an interim position as a minister in Springfield. She got to meet her first nephew. Her hair has grown back, and she's swimming a mile four to five times a week.

"I don't know how long this respite will last, but I hope it lasts a good, long while," Stroup told the group, which also included physicians and scientists.

"Sooner or later this treatment that I'm on will stop working, but I've returned to life, and I like it. I want a lot more of it, so I'm counting on you to find a new treatment that can bring me back to health."

Access to the very latest cancer treatments ‹ without having to travel far from home ‹ is one of the advantages of having a cancer center in the community that has earned the distinction of being a National Cancer Institute-designated center.

In 1995, the VCC became one of only 43 U.S. cancer centers dedicated to basic research and clinical care that have earned the NCI distinction. There are very few NCI-designated centers in the southeast, and VCC is the only Tennessee center dedicated to all aspects of cancer research and treatment to hold NCI designation. The NCI is a part of the National Institutes of Health, the leading supporter of medical research in the United States.

New therapies being investigated in clinical trials, such as the ones in which Stroup participated, represent the very best cancer care available today, said Dr. David H. Johnson, Cornelius Abernathy Craig Professor of Oncology and associate director for clinical programs in the VCC.

"If you have cancer, you want to be a part of a research project," he said. "We don't do research when we have all the answers. These are research programs brought together by the best minds in this country and sometimes throughout the world."

Vanderbilt's strong foundation of basic cancer research and the close relationship between basic scientists and clinicians was a key factor in Vanderbilt's success in obtaining NCI designation, said Dr. Harold L. Moses, Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and director of the VCC.

"It is the feeling of the NCI ‹ and I agree with this ‹ that future breakthroughs in cancer treatment, diagnosis and prevention will come from basic research findings and through translational research programs, which take findings from basic research and apply them in the clinical setting and vice versa," Moses said.

The VCC and the Nashville community have much to gain from each other, Moses said.

In addition to access to cutting-edge treatments, the community gains because the NCI designation makes possible new community education and outreach programs, Moses said.

And there's what he termed "the prestige factor." Moses noted that NCI-designated cancer centers can't be found in other large cities including Louisville, Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis and New Orleans, as well as in many states in the Southeast.

"Nashville is a major city, and it should have an NCI-designated cancer center," Moses said. "We can take pride in having one."

Moses also noted that the VCC receives about $45 million each year in research grants and contracts, funding that pays the salaries of 1,000 local residents who work at the VCC and is used to purchase equipment and supplies from local vendors.

"So this activity has a big impact on the local economy as well as the advancement of knowledge," he said.

On the other hand, the VCC, like any successful cancer center, depends on support from the community, he said. He cited as examples service by community members on the Board of Overseers, as well as generous support for the A.B. Hancock Jr. Memorial Laboratory, the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories of the T.J. Martell Foundation, and the Ingram Charitable Fund.

"It's very difficult to overstate the importance of this type of support," Moses said. "We do very well at getting the competitive grants and contracts. However, funding for grants and contracts is very restricted. It's virtually impossible to get a grant or contract to support the innovative, really cutting-edge research."

The research and quality of clinical care available at the VCC is important, but the caring and compassion given to patients and their families also makes a difference, Stroup said.

"If there's a mind/body connection, then I'm convinced that part of the reason I've done as well as I have is because of the people of the Cancer Center," she said. "I still have a ways to go, but I'm slowly putting back together a life for myself. The opportunity to do that is what the Cancer Center has given me."