We all know someone – a family member, a friend, a neighbor – who has died of cancer, the second-leading cause of death in Georgia and a main cause of disability and economic hardship. Every day, nearly 100 cases of cancer are diagnosed in our state, and thousands more Georgians are living with the disease.
So it’s no coincidence that Gov. Nathan Deal’s recent visit to Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta took place at our Cancer Center. The governor has pledged $5 million to it in his 2012-13 budget, and continues to reiterate his support of the GHSU Cancer Center becoming Georgia’s second National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.
GEORGIANS diagnosed with cancer in the Atlanta area are fortunate to have convenient access to Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute, currently the state’s only NCI cancer center and home to many excellent physicians and scientists. However, not all Georgians can easily travel to seek specialized cancer care or participate in clinical trials, nor can a single institution serve all the needs of a state as large and diverse as Georgia.
Earlier this year, inspired by the passion and commitment of GHSU President Ricardo Azziz and its outstanding faculty, clinicians and staff, I became the new GHSU Cancer Center director, overseeing our shared vision of NCI designation. I am honored by the responsibility and excited by the challenge. And I am motivated on a daily basis by what our chosen path means for Georgia and the community we serve.
Georgia has an enormous need for a second NCI cancer center. Compared with similar-sized states in the Southeast, Georgia is underserved and receives far less funding for cancer research and clinical trials from the federal government. For example, Georgia and North Carolina are almost identical in size, but North Carolina has three NCI cancer centers and receives three times more NCI research funding than Georgia.
VIRGINIA HAS 1.5 million fewer people than Georgia and is served by two NCI cancer centers. In 2010, the NCI provided Virginia with $11 in research funding per person compared with $4 per person to Georgia. That equaled $88 million for Virginia vs. just $41 million for Georgia. Only 10 percent of that funding was awarded to GHSU.
NCI designation is the goal. But even more important is the journey. The GHSU Cancer Center was designed to meet the growing needs of southeast Georgia for state-of-the art cancer treatment, access to clinical trials and strong community partnership in reducing the burden of cancer through community health outreach and public education. But achieving NCI designation necessitates an array of new programs that will benefit the entire state:
• The GHSU Cancer Center will conduct important research into the biology behind the disease, specifically among Georgia citizens, to help us create effective new therapies and better prevention strategies.
• We will design and develop an increasing number of clinical trials, providing new hope to patients with aggressive disease. These trials will provide access to new cancer therapies that many Georgians now travel many miles or to other states to receive.
• GHSU also will work to better understand behaviors of diverse Georgians that increase the risk of
getting cancer, such as smoking and overexposure to sunlight. Improved knowledge of cancer risk will help us develop more effective community-based prevention programs targeted to the populations we serve.
• As GHSU expands our cancer research portfolio, we will attract a growing stream of talented scientists and clinicians from across the globe. They will join an excellent team of health-care professionals committed to serving southeast Georgia and beyond with exceptional cancer care.
• Becoming an NCI cancer center will also boost GHSU’s economic impact to the state, adding jobs, stimulating the creation and attraction of innovative biopharmaceutical and medical device companies, and enhancing scientific discovery.
OUR JOURNEY toward NCI designation already has begun. We are building on current strengths in research and patient care. In the basic sciences, our focus is on translating bench discoveries into clinical benefits, particularly in the fields of personalized medicine and targeted therapies.
With respect to our clinical services, we are launching new programs that emphasize patient- and family-centered care. Teams of physicians, nurses and other health practitioners are coordinating efforts to treat the whole patient and not just their disease.
And, given the highly diverse population we serve, we are working hard to learn what causes large differences in the incidence of certain cancers between various ethnic and racial groups.
GHSU also is committed to working closely with community-based partners. We already have partnerships with clinics, hospitals and health systems across the state and within our local community. These providers send us patients requiring additional evaluation or forms of treatment not readily available in most clinics or hospitals. We are building on these partnerships and adding new ones so that collectively we can improve cancer care in Georgia. And we are grateful for the already-voiced support and partnership of our own university leadership and the leadership of our state.
From Rome to Valdosta to Savannah, our goal is to prevent as much cancer as possible in all populations. When prevention is not possible, our goal is to detect disease as early as possible, ideally before symptoms develop. Reducing disparities in access to early detection services, clinical trials, the latest therapies and high-quality follow-up care is essential if all Georgians are to benefit equally from our state’s expanded investment in cancer research.
OUR “CANCER community” is composed of health-care workers, scientists, the business community, our political leaders and – most importantly – you! Working together as partners will ensure our success. I cannot overstate the importance of your awareness and support as a citizen of this state and a member of our cancer community.
As GHSU works to become an NCI-designated cancer center, we urge you to become an active partner in helping to reduce the burden of this disease in Georgia. We need your support, and we are counting on you.
(The writer is director of the Georgia Health Sciences University Cancer Center. He came to GHSU after a 22-year career with the National Institutes of Health as a cancer researcher.)