By Dr. Robert J. Hoyer

Few words evoke as much dread or fear as “cancer.” New research and cutting-edge care are redefining what a cancer diagnosis means.

Cancer specialists now have more options in customizing a person’s care than ever before. While cancer is never a diagnosis anyone wants to receive, these medical advances are changing the face of living with cancer.

People might assume that such state-of-the-art treatment is only found at Ivy League medical centers or major East Coast and West Coast cities. Truth is, Colorado is home to some of the most advanced cancer care available in the U.S.

Lung cancer, the leading cancer killer, accounts for more than a quarter of all cancer deaths with an estimated 160,340 people dying of it each year. That’s more than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. Yet, as scary as this sounds, physicians right here are putting a decent dent in those dire statistics.

Memorial Hospital recently launched a low-cost lung CT screening program. Designed for long-time smokers, these screenings enable physicians to detect malignancies at a very early stage, which helps to improve survival. The service is provided at an affordable cost – $75 – so that price does not prevent someone from taking this potentially life-saving measure.

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One of the physicians currently involved in the development of lung cancer screening guidelines is Dr. Matthew Blum, a Memorial thoracic surgeon and one of just six general thoracic surgeons in the state of Colorado. He and his partner, Dr. Jenifer Marks, armed with these screenings as a road map, are able to remove early-stage lung cancers using minimally invasive techniques.

Meanwhile Memorial’s partners, Aurora-based University of Colorado Hospital and the University of Colorado Cancer Center, offer not only the latest treatment, but scientific discovery. The University of Colorado Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center for hundreds of miles, the only one in Colorado and one of just a few dozen nationally. That means that Colorado patients have greater access to clinical trials and the latest medical knowledge than just about anyone in the country. And since Memorial Hospital is now affiliated with the University of Colorado Health, Colorado Springs residents have greater access to this expertise.

Consider the drug Crizotinib. Researchers at UCCC were instrumental in developing this chemotherapy drug that targets specific molecules. This kind of personalized therapy improves quality of life and survival, and it began here in Colorado. Comparable ground-breaking work takes place at this elite institution on a regular basis.

Even so, treatment and research are only two components of cancer care. The expert staff and the tools available to them enhance the level of care provided. This is why UC Health invested more than $40 million in a state-of-the-art electronic medical record system and other technology. The electronic record allows physicians to share medical information about their patients more effectively and completely. Memorial employs five medical oncologists who, in partnership with UCCC, can help enroll many of their patients into the latest clinical trials and share records and information with trusted counterparts.

Among the other improvements at Memorial is the most advanced PET/CT scanner currently available and it allows for planning more precise delivery of radiation therapy. This high-tech machine is one of just six in the western U.S. and one of the few found outside of an academic medical center. Such an investment is more than just an upgrade to a new toy or gadget. It truly means the difference in Memorial Cancer Center being able to provide the highest level of care to our patients.

Despite these significant advances, the emotional drain of this disease cannot be underestimated, which is why Memorial Cancer Center couples its expert clinical care and technology with a nurse navigator program. Navigators, as the title implies, are nurses who help patients navigate the complex world associated with their care.

The numerous appointments cancer patients have can be daunting to keep up with, and the nurse navigators provide this assistance along with education and emotional support throughout the patient’s journey.

Perhaps someday the word “cancer” will be no more threatening than a cold or the flu. Until then, an army of brilliant minds and compassionate care providers, right here in Colorado, won’t rest.

Dr. Robert J. Hoyer is the oncology service line director for Memorial Hospital, part of University of Colorado Health.