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BLOG: Cancer in Kentucky: Why Research Matters

B. Mark Evers, UK Markey Cancer Center
Markey Cancer Center Director B. Mark Evers, M.D., photographed March 2, 2022. Mark Cornelison | UK Photo

This blog is written by B. Mark Evers, M.D., director of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, in recognition of National Cancer Research Month.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 10, 2022) — We would swing for hours in the backyard – even under the blazing hot Tennessee summer sun.

When we got bored with the swings, sometimes we would kick around a ball in the backyard. Our mothers would have to holler for us several times before we would finally go inside for dinner time.

My friend and I were only four or five years old but my memories of playtime with him are burned vividly in my mind, all these years later.

That was our last summer together.

Sometimes on a stifling hot summer day where the air feels trapped, I’ll catch myself thinking of him – of what his life may have been like if leukemia hadn’t taken him away so young.

Perhaps he would still be alive if the treatments available for pediatric cancers today were around back then.

Cancer research is personal.

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When I think about cancer in Kentucky, I am proud of the tremendous strides we have made to loosen the grip of this terrible disease on our people.

The University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center is the go-to cancer center in the state as the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated center in the Commonwealth. We have made incredible progress in advancing medicine and cancer research. And what an exciting time to be in this field – new discoveries are happening almost weekly that can, and are, changing cancer treatments and saving lives.

Currently, Markey researchers hold about $60 million in cancer-related grant awards. The research this money funds benefits Kentuckians in many ways, but one of the most profound is through the growth of our Precision Medicine Clinic.  This clinic is dedicated to the advancement of treatment options for cancer patients of all kinds and stages of health through new clinical trials.  Patients enrolled in these studies receive their clinical care from a multidisciplinary team of UK faculty and staff experienced in clinical trials and oncology drug development.

Clinical trials help us advance treatments and medications that will ultimately save lives through extensive research and the participation of volunteers. Nearly every breakthrough in treating and curing disease is the result of a patient who was willing to give it a try.

Since Markey is NCI-designated, we are able to bring exciting research opportunities to our patients. As a result, patients can take advantage of new treatments, drugs or technologies that are not readily available elsewhere.

Markey currently has nearly 160 ongoing clinical trials.

In addition to medical advancement, cancer research discoveries are making an impact on Kentucky in other important ways.

One example can be found just outside of Lexington, in a sprawling field full of wispy green plants. In a unique collaboration between the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, the UK College of Pharmacy, and UK HealthCare, researchers and clinicians are taking Artemisia annua from Spindletop Farm to UK research labs to UK HealthCare patients.

The plant, originating in southeast Asia, has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries and is commonly brewed as a drink. Now, researchers in Kentucky and across the world are looking to determine if this little plant could hold the key to treating several types of cancer, including ovarian cancer and pediatric acute myeloid leukemia (AML). A new phase 1 clinical trial was developed at UK – the first human trial in the world – to test Artemisia annua on this disease in ovarian cancer patients.

Cancer research is multi-faceted.

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The cancer burden in Kentucky is significant. We lead the nation in new cancer cases and deaths – with more than 27,000 new cases and over 10,100 deaths each year.

Forty-one percent of the 4.4 million people living in Kentucky live in rural areas, and 16.3% live in poverty. Far too often, poverty, geographic, racial and ethnic disparities and limited access to screening drive our high cancer rates. Tobacco use, obesity, environmental exposures and viral infections (HPV, HPC) are Kentucky-specific risk factors deepening our burden.

The UK Markey Cancer Center has more than doubled in patient volume over the last decade. Our research endeavors have grown on all fronts, including our basic research, population science research, clinical trials and community engagement efforts.

Our Markey CARES Tobacco Treatment Program takes on a two-pronged approach of educational and clinical initiatives to address the problem of tobacco use in Markey patients. Implementation of this program puts Markey in line with best practice guidelines, policy statements and “calls to action” from the leading professional organizations.

We are taking ACTION (Appalachian Career Training in Oncology) to train students from eastern Kentucky to engage in research, education, clinical shadowing and outreach activities. So far, we have worked with 88 Appalachian students – more than a dozen of whom are now attending medical school.

Markey has made incredible strides in advancing medicine and cancer research through the creation of a Molecular Tumor Board, allowing physicians from all corners of the state to call in and ask for advice to treat their patients.

We have also taken enormous steps to change Kentucky culture. Who would have ever dreamed that a state known for its tobacco use would jump to now the second-highest state in the country for lung cancer screenings?

Soon, we hope to take the UK Markey Cancer Center to the next level by becoming an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center, which would open the door to additional funding – meaning more research, enhanced cancer screening and prevention efforts and more clinical trials. We will see significant improvement in the patient experience at the UK Markey Cancer Center by consolidating services into a new advanced ambulatory care center currently in development.

All of these steps will help us achieve our critical mission of “Conquering Cancer in the Commonwealth.”

Cancer research is impactful.

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When I think about cancer in Kentucky, I think about the thousands of patients who – day in and day out – are sitting in the lobby of our UK Markey Cancer Center clinics, waiting with bated breath for the results of their latest scans.

Whether they are newly diagnosed or have been coming to UK HealthCare for years, I think about their fear, the feelings of loneliness, of loss, of grief.

I think about the 37-year-old single mom of three facing stage IV colon cancer and the former UK employee whose diagnosis came out of left field, leaving her endlessly searching for answers.

I think about our patients’ care partners – family and friends – whose lives are upended and forever changed as they learn how to navigate this new, scary world. And all the while they continue to support their loved one by putting on a brave face day after day, keeping the rest of their world going.

I think about our own people – our family – at Markey, many of whom are multigenerational Kentuckians. Their passion to stand alongside our patients on this journey is unwavering. They often burn the candle at both ends, juggling research and writing grants, on top of creating the best treatment plans for the patients who mean so much to them.

I also think of my colleagues who are patients themselves.

At the same time, I am humbled by our success.

From the stunning turnaround of the grandmother dying of recurrent cancer, to the high school and undergraduate ACTION students – the next generation of professionals – who are speaking up to educate their local communities and change the future. The onus is on us all to change the odds for Kentuckians.

We need your help more than ever. When you donate to Markey, you help shape the future of cancer care. You can also contribute to our success by volunteering to provide critical support for patients and families.

From Pikeville to Paducah, every single person has the potential to help change the course of cancer in Kentucky.

Cancer research needs you.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.