Nearly 1,000 new cancer cases a year are diagnosed at Wheeling Hospital's Schiffler Cancer Center, the only accredited comprehensive treatment center in the Northern Panhandle.
While that may seem like a lot, radiation oncologist Dr. Jondavid Pollock says the numbers are about what you'd expect to see in similarly-sized communities. What's not normal, he said, is the fact that so many of the patients they see come to them in Stage III and Stage IV.
"The population of the area is decreasing, so overall we don't see as many cancers as you would in major metropolitan areas, (but) the relative number of advanced stage cancers … is more obvious and prominent here," Pollock said.
"The reason is patients tend to ignore diseases more, so one of the major targets of the American Cancer Society, particularly in West Virginia, is to develop better patient awareness — an appreciation for the value of screenings and healthier lifestyles, the value of getting people to understand that seeing a doctor because they have a new problem is not necessarily going to result in a bad outcome. Those have been some of our biggest challenges here."
He said Schiffler's staff is "out on the road all the time preaching the benefits of screenings and education" to area residents.
"It's really all about people coming in and being seen, getting their colonoscopies, their CT scans, pap smears and mammograms. That's really been the challenge for us."
Schiffler gives Wheeling area resi dents a chance to get cutting-edge treatments they need close to home, rather than having to drive to Pittsburgh or Cleveland.
"In order to be accredited as a comprehensive cancer center, you have to diagnose at least 650 new cancer cases a year, you need to have a very active research program, you need to conduct tumor boards and maintain affiliations with nationally sanctioned cancer research programs," he said.
"We do all that: We diagnose nearly 1,000 new patients a year, we have a multi-specialty tumor board that meets regularly specifically designated to address breast cancers, head and neck cancers, brain tumors and genito-urinary cancers. We currently have 54 research protocols open here. That's divided between our medical oncology and radiation oncology programs."
He said the hospital is seeing an increasing number of human papilloma virus (HPV)-positive head and neck cancers, mostly in men aged 45-65.
"We actually just completed a clinical trial in this group of patients, many of whom were non-smokers," he said. "That's one of the advantages of being treated at a center such as Wheeling Hospital. As a cancer research facility … any time new trends in cancer are identified, we're all over it. Trials are released all the time, and every week we meet to review them and determine if they are appropriate to be offered here."
Wheeling Hospital's cancer care program, he said, "is dedicated to providing the same quality and experience in cancer care" offered at big city hospitals. That means recruiting top-notch, highly regarded doctors, nurses and technicians, weekly tumor boards that review cases and treatment plans and providing survivorship, palliative and patient navigator programs to assist and encourage patients throughout their treatment and beyond.
"A real, comprehensive cancer center is one that does more than offer cancer care alone," he adds. "The only way to cure cancer, or cure the increasing number of patients with cancer, is by offering new therapies … taking standard therapies and building on them.
"That's really what cancer clinical trials are all about. We're always looking for better treatments with less toxicity, always looking for the next home run, but we don't abandon what we've done in the past unless we can demonstrate there's truly something better."
Schiffler "treats far more cancer patients than any other hospital in the region" and is the only provider locally conducting cancer research and clinical trials. To date, patients from 41 states and 16 countries have been treated there.
"We attribute the success of our program to the people, all the doctors, nurses, therapists and hospital administrators who have carried the torch," Pollock said. "No one came to us and said, ‘Here's a couple million dollars. Do something with it.' This is all homegrown, it's a grassroots program. It's what our people need and fortunately, we have the staff and enthusiasm to build the program."