Kentucky has the dubious distinction of being the worst state in the nation for lung cancer and for deaths from that insidious disease.
That virtually ensures a steady flow of patients when the $140 million St. Elizabeth Cancer Center opens, scheduled for late next year. But the center is designed to do more than treat cancer, although treatment is a critical need. Prevention and early diagnosis will be priorities too.
“We’re putting a huge focus on preventive programs,” says St. Elizabeth Healthcare CEO Garren Colvin.
A key part of that is a comprehensive, low-dose CT lung screening program that the health care organization has expanded.
“In a short 18 months, it’s quickly become one of the best in the country, not only in quality but in volume,” Colvin says.
In November, staff at St. Elizabeth performed the 10,000th lung screening at the hospital, a milestone only held by a handful of other health care systems in the country. The screening program has identified about 100 lung cancers at an early stage (under Stage III), giving patients more options, permitting surgeons in many cases to remove the tumors, and often sparing patients the need for chemotherapy.
“About 75 percent of chemotherapy does more harm than good,” Colvin says. “Anytime we can provide an alternate method of treatment, you’re going to have a better chance of success, a better chance of recovery.”
Kentucky ranks worst in the country for lung cancer diagnosis and death rates, according to 2018 data from the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries and reported by the American Cancer Society.
When lung cancer is diagnosed and treated early (in Stage I), the five-year survival rate can exceed 90 percent, according to data from the American Joint Committee on Cancer.
Prevention and early diagnosis have become all the more important in Kentucky, as the state is consistently one of the top two in smoking rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Staff at St. E’s screen about 350 at-risk patients per month, the hospital says, detecting a new lung cancer in about one in every 62 scans. The program has been greatly expanded since it began in late 2013. That year, staff completed only seven lung cancer screens, the hospital says.
“We have shifted the dial by identifying hundreds of cancers at a stage one or stage two, as opposed to identifying it when it’s less fortunate to find,” Colvin says.
The screening program is one piece of what is designed to be a comprehensive cancer center that aims to take care of the whole patient as well as their families.
“What St. E wants to do is build a program that takes care of the whole patient,” Colvin says. “A one-stop shop where the clinician and the physician actually come to the patient as opposed to the patient traveling to several different locations.”
Typically, ongoing cancer treatment requires patients to travel to different location to meet with their surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, and other caregivers. That will change at the St. E center.
“Our goal is to have a patient experience where the patient comes to one location and they have a personal navigator guide them through the process,” Colvin says. “With each of the physicians who are seeing the patient, those visits are coordinated through our navigator, so it’s the least amount of intrusion on the personal time of the patient.”
The center will also include nearly an entire floor dedicated to providing a holistic treatment approach known as integrative oncology.
St. Elizabeth has partnered with a Utah-based health and wellness company called doTERRA International, which will develop and operate what will be called the Center for Integrative Oncology.
The Center, located on the first floor, will be designed with a calming space to provide holistic care options, including the use of essential oils and aromatherapy, yoga, meditation, and a spa-like atmosphere for patients undergoing treatment. Education on learning how to cope with cancer will also be available at the Center.
“It’s not just for the patient, it’s for the patients and their families,” Colvin says. “So an entire family can come in and figure out what’s the best way to cook for mom and dad, grandma, grandpa, brother or sister who are going through this experience.”
Dr. Doug Flora, who was named executive medical director of oncology services at St. Elizabeth in August, says the services will enhance the wellness of cancer patients and their families. “Adding supplemental resources will help improve the quality of life for our patients and families as they are going through diagnosis, treatment and into survivorship,” he says.
The new center will also enable St. E to expand the community’s access to cutting-edge clinical research, creating connections to more clinical trials sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and members of the NCI National Clinical Trials Network.
“We have a vision,” Colvin says. “We want to give our patients access to clinical trials, which means they will have access to drugs eight years before they are available on the market.”
Many of those trials and research are already well under way. “We are in well over a hundred clinical trials right now,” he says, “trying to do what we feel is the best course of treatment for our patients.”
Perhaps the greatest long-term impact of the new center will be its use as a recruitment tool to bring top-flight cancer specialists to the region and possibly chip away at Kentucky’s unwanted No. 1 ranking.
“We’re trying to recruit the best physicians to lead this vision that we have to not only make Northern Kentucky one the healthiest communities in America, but to try to spread our knowledge on this topic with the rest of Kentucky so that we can eliminate Kentucky from being the worst in lung cancer deaths,” Colvin says.
“It won’t be long and we won’t be number one anymore,” he says.