The UAB Cancer Center announced Tuesday that RMC will be one of the first affiliate hospitals in the new UAB Cancer Care Network program. As a network affiliate, RMC will be able to collaborate with UAB physicians on diagnosis and treatment, cancer patients will have access to more clinical trials and RMC staff will receive education and training on breaking medical innovations.
According to RMC CEO David McCormack, many patients who would have been referred to UAB’s cancer center can now be stay at home and be treated locally. He explained that, for patients undergoing chemo or radiation, the drive to and from Birmingham can be traumatic. Dr. Ed Partridge, director of UAB Cancer Center, said that while no studies exist to prove it, the benefits of being treated locally are tremendous.
“Family can be there, they can go home at night, they’re in familiar surroundings,” he said. When asked if this improved patients’ medical condition he answered, “We intuitively know that’s the case.”
According to Partridge, RMC was chosen because of its location and its long-standing relationship with UAB, adding that potential affiliates had to have an established cancer center and a reputation for quality care.
The cancer program at RMC has been accredited by the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons for 17 years and this summer was ranked in the top 5 percent of cancer programs in the country, according to McCormack.
“That doesn’t just happen. There is a lot of work that goes into that,” McCormack said. He said UAB representatives visited RMC several times and were impressed with their weekly tumor boards, where physicians collaborate on problem cases, and their radiation equipment, which he called the most sophisticated in northeastern Alabama.
The affiliation with UAB will open more opportunities for RMC cancer patients and give RMC physicians access to the latest medical research.
“Not just UAB’s research,” McCormack said. “Research from around the world funnels through the teaching institutions.”
Along with RMC, Southeast Alabama Medical Center in Dothan, Russell Medical Center in Alexander City and Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon, Ga. make up the first four affiliates of the program. Partridge said he is already in talks with more hospitals.
“The network will grow,” he said. “We want the network to cover the state.”
McCormack said that all affiliates pay an association fee that helps cover education and marketing costs. According to Partridge, the fee depends on the size of the institution and the services it will be accessing.
Partridge said the goal of the network program is to bring the assets of a National Cancer Institute designated cancer center to a larger population.
“Alabama is a very rural state,” Partridge said. “We believe we have a responsibility, along with our affiliates, to provide people in those areas access to quality care.”
The Cancer Institute at Duke University implemented a similar program over 20 years. Dr. Linda Sutton, medical director of the Duke Oncology Network, said the program has been successful at reaching patients in rural North Carolina.
“Our biggest success has been getting clinical trials in rural communities,” she said. According to Sutton, clinical trials are still looked on with suspicion in the South. She said her program has worked to change that by educating patients and assuring the community of their presence.
“It’s important to be a presence in the community,” she said. “Let them know you’re not going anywhere, you’ll be there for them.”
Alvin Robertson was diagnosed with colon cancer on Sept. 16, 2008. He had gone in for a colonoscopy, “just as a precaution,” after his brother, Guy, died of pancreatic cancer a year before. When the doctor broke the news, he couldn’t believe it.
“I told him I don’t have any symptoms,” Robertson recalled. “He said, ‘Why do you think they call it the silent killer?’ I didn’t say anything after that.”
Robertson had surgery on Sept. 28 and spent the next six months receiving chemotherapy from RMC’s cancer center. His last seven CEA tests, a test used to determine if cancer cells have returned, have come back clean.
During his treatment, Robertson’s wife, Mary, took comfort in reading up on his illness and the procedures he was undergoing.
“Sharing information is one of the best things that’s come along,” she said. “We need to gather all the facts and information we can.”
The cancer survivor said he thinks UAB’s affiliation with RMC is going to be a good thing.
“A lot of people have cancer, a lot of people,” he said. “And they need all the help they can get.”