Slightly more than 65 percent of patients with gynecological cancers land in the “cured” category, according to Julian Schink, MD, division chief of women’s health for Spectrum Health Medical Group.
“We’re fighting this battle against cancer by trying to create new treatments and establish which treatments work better in the context that they improve quality of life,” Schink said. “We make sure we respect quality of life and factor that in.”
Schink said his department’s mission is more than just saving lives.
“We want to save the life that they think of as living, not just keeping them breathing,” Schink said. “We want to save their hopes, dreams and their ability to live life. We want their life intact.”
It’s a mission and battle strategy that draws people in from all over the Midwest. A track record of clinical trials, engaged staff, expertise and a high-tech treatment facility make Spectrum Health a place to be for a strong fighting chance.
“I think the key message is at Spectrum Health, women will have access to leading-edge and state-of-the-art treatment with the availability of clinical trials, which deliver the newest and not otherwise available treatment,” Schink said.
Schink said many patients drive from Chicago for treatment. Schink and his team partner with the patients’ home oncologist to manage care.
“I’ve been actively involved in clinical trials for gynecologic cancer for a long time,” he said. “When you do that, people begin to recognize that you might have some insights.”
Schink said it’s an exciting time in cancer research and treatment.
Clinical trials are showing that the use of biological agents can make old-fashioned chemotherapy drugs more effective, especially in cervical cancer treatment.
“Folks here in Grand Rapids participated actively in those trials,” Schink said.
Laboratories will now try to duplicate those results on a broader scale.
Schink is also the principle investigator on a worldwide study of a rare placental cancer that can grow in women after they suffer a miscarriage.
“That cancer is so rare we have to study it all over the world,” he said. “It’s open in 100 different institutions in the United States as well as institutions in Korea, Japan and the U.K.”
But despite patients coming from all over the Midwest for treatment, each case is different.
“We have the ability to personalize cancer care and respect patients’ individual needs and really preserve their quality of life,” Schink said. “That’s what makes what we do rewarding for me and my colleagues.”
The progress may be incremental, but it’s evident.
When Schink first stepped onto the battleground in the 1980s, the median survival for ovarian cancer was 14 months.
Seven clinical trials and close to three decades later, that numbers has rocketed to 66 months.
And when Schink was a rookie, only 10 percent of patients were still alive after five years. Today, that number is closer to 60 percent.
“It doesn’t mean we’re curing 60 percent of ovarian cancer, but we’re keeping people alive a lot longer and their quality of life is a lot better,” Schink said. “Another benefit of these clinical trials is there are more outcomes than just dead or alive. What’s your quality of life while on this treatment, throughout the course of the illness? We’re making a lot of progress.”