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Texas Oncology–Tyler Celebrates 25 Years of Cancer Treatment

By Betty Waters

Publication: Tyler Morning Telegraph

Since its start 25 years ago, community-based Texas Oncology-Tyler has grown into a major East Texas cancer treatment and research center.

The cancer center started with a small team of 25 employees who treated about 10 patients per day and now has approximately 125 employees who care for well over 500 patients each month. Initially having three medical oncologists, Texas Oncology-Tyler today has 11 providers, including seven oncologists and four nurse practitioners.

Several staff members, patients and city officials joined in a commemoration Thursday of the founding of Texas Oncology-Tyler. Patients were invited to sign a banner for the occasion.

On behalf of the mayor, City Council and city, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Westbrook presented a proclamation that Thursday was Texas Oncology-Tyler 25th Anniversary Day. It described the medical facility as a home for high quality and compassionate care and for leading-edge research serving East Texas.

Texas Oncology-Tyler was founded in 1994 by the late Dr. Gary Kimmel, who quickly recruited Dr. Donald Richards, a medical oncologist, and later brought on board Dr. Mark Saunders, a radiation oncologist. The three partnered and together built and led the center’s development through the years.

Looking back during a ceremony celebrating the center’s start, Richards said he never imagined early on the exponential growth of the center and breakthrough cancer treatments and trials it would be involved in.

In the beginning, the center was known as Tyler Cancer Center, although Kimmel was a member even then of Texas Oncology, the largest group of oncologists in the nation. It is based at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas with programs and centers that expanded throughout the state. Several years ago, Tyler Cancer Center was renamed Texas Oncology-Tyler.

Among the first patients were Kepen Gilliam, of New Chapel Hill, and his wife, Robin, both of whom have been treated twice for different kinds of cancer at the center and came to Thursday’s celebration.

Kepen Gilliam said the care was wonderful, while Robin Gilliam said, “I wouldn’t go anywhere else. From the front desk all the way to the back room to the treatment rooms, everybody gave good care.”

Another longtime patient, Linda Holm, of Lindale, has been treated at the center with chemotherapy, radiation, different drugs, some that she said are old standbys, and also participated in trials of drugs.

“I have gotten excellent care here,” she said. “I’ve been thoroughly ministered to by doctors, nurses, radiologists, all the staff.”

Texas Oncology-Tyler makes it possible for cancer patients to receive high quality care close to home and family while they fight cancer, Richards said. The cancer center draws patients not only from Tyler, but from surrounding areas 50 to 75 miles in all directions.

Prior to the opening of the center, many local cancer patients and their families often had to drive to Houston or Dallas for treatment.

Through the years, Richards said, the staff and medical field have seen tremendous improvement in survival of cancer patients, in the management of cancer symptoms and ability to give cancer drugs.

There’s a tremendous difference today from what the outlook was 25 years ago for cancer patients, Richards said.

The center has witnessed and led advancements in cancer care, such as immunotherapy, Richards said. It is a new type of treatment that activates the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer.

“We have seen tremendous advances,” Richards said. “Some people go into complete remission who never would have been in remission prior to immunotherapy.”

There also have been significant advances in radiation therapy, which can now closely target a tumor and avoid damaging normal tissue, he said. “It can be much more effective and given in higher doses,” he said.

Beams of radiation can be focused on tumors in the body or brain with good outcomes and some lung cancers can be effectively treated without surgery, Richards said.

Research is an integral part of the center as well. The research component has grown from one volunteer research nurse in the beginning to more than 25 nurses and staff members.

“We have at any one time 50 to 60 clinical trials open to our patients,” Richards said.

“We have been involved in more than 30 percent of new FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approved cancer drugs. We were able to have them first in the community, sometimes first in the nation,” Richards added.

Cancer clinical trials and implementation of Fit Steps for Life, an exercise program for cancer patients, are among Texas Oncology-Tyler’s programs that have impacted patients, Richards said.

Dr. Sasha Strain, also a member of the Texas Oncology-Tyler medical team, said the center has been recognized by one of the industry’s most prominent trade organizations, the American Society for Clinical Oncology, for excellence in community research.

Describing the center as a prolific research site, she added, “We’ve established ourselves as one of only a few Phase 1 clinical research centers in the state.”

According to Richards, Texas Oncology-Tyler will offer in the future another major breakthrough treatment, called chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy.

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