As a gastroenterologist (GI) and oncologic surgeon, Dr. Mark Evers says he tries to see the glass as half full when caring for cancer patients. He celebrates the victories when a tumor shrinks or a cancer goes into remission, and he feels emotionally drained when the outcomes aren’t as positive.
Yet Evers says he’s been in the field long enough to be excited by what lies ahead. “I’m a GI surgeon, but I would love to be put out of business,” Evers says, reflecting on the prospects for new discoveries in cancer research and treatment.
Evers is director of the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky. He spoke with Bill Goodman on KET’s One to One.
Achieving the ‘Gold Standard’
Markey is the only facility in the commonwealth to be a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center. Evers says receiving that recognition took three years of work by the UK staff.
“It has been a huge positive,” Evers says. “The NCI designation really is the gold standard that all cancer centers try to achieve.”
As a result, Markey has increased the number of patients it serves, has expanded the number of clinical trials it offers, and has been able to attract top clinical and research talent to the center, according to Evers. He says Markey now has more than 250 clinical trials underway, some of which test new drugs they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access without the NCI designation.
A Goal to Conquer Cancer
During his six years as the head of Markey, Evers says he’s seen the center’s reach expand around the state and beyond. He explains that Markey now works with 14 affiliate hospitals, primarily in eastern Kentucky, but also in Louisville, Elizabethtown, and Henderson, as well as in Cincinnati. That means cancer patients can find excellent treatment close to home without having to travel to other states, Evers says.
He also points to a partnership between UK and the University of Louisville to address the leading cause of cancer deaths in Kentucky: lung cancer. Kentucky LEADS (which stands for lung cancer education, awareness, detection, and survivorship) will unite medical specialists and community partners in an effort to boost lung cancer prevention and screening activities.
Evers says Markey also has a broader goal of “conquering cancer in the commonwealth.” He says the center wants to develop education, prevention, and treatment strategies to reduce Kentucky’s 26,000 annual cancer deaths by half.
Reasons for Hope
When he was 4 years old, Markey lost a friend to leukemia, which he says was a death sentence in those days. Now after 20 years in medicine, Evers says he’s excited by how treatment protocols can be tailored to each specific case.
For example, instead of treating all colon cancer patients the same way, Evers says doctors can now target the treatment based on genomic characteristics of each person’s tumor. He also points to research that is showing how existing drugs for infectious diseases can be re-purposed to have cancer-fighting properties.
While he doesn’t foresee a cure for cancer, Evers does envision a day when cancer becomes a treatable condition much like diabetes.
“I hope we get to that point with cancer, where it becomes a chronic disease,” Evers explains, “[where] patients will be dying of something else other than the cancer.”