December 12, 2011

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

UAB Cancer Center Spotlights Fight Against Tough Disease


UAB cancer center.JPG

BIRMINGHAM --  Last week -- about six years after he was supposed to die -- pancreatic cancer survivor Denny LaVercombe went to a Christmas program at Vestavia Hills Elementary West to see his third-grade grandchild.

While treatment and detection have advanced in some major cancers, pancreatic cancer has seen no progress in reducing incidence or mortality over 25 years. But LaVercombe, with the help of aggressive care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is an exception, and he will share his perspective tonight at the annual UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center report to the public.

"I think the world of UAB," said LaVercombe, 72. "Not only the diagnosis and treatment, but also the attitude of all their people. The doctors and nurses have a positive attitude, always optimistic."

Also speaking tonight will be Dr. Ed Partridge, the cancer center director, and UAB pancreatic cancer researchers Donald Buchsbaum and Pablo Arnoletti.

"We see people and families affected by a deadly disease," said surgeon Arnoletti. "They come here after being told there is nothing they can do.

"We believe that's not true," he said. "There is always something that can be done, even in advanced disease."

LaVercombe knows advanced cancer. He's fighting his fourth recurrence of the pancreatic cancer. And he sharply remembers how isolated he felt when first diagnosed at another medical center.

"I got no encouragement from the hospital," he said. "There were also no survivors to talk to. That's very discouraging."

In response, he became an active volunteer with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and talks to several pancreatic cancer patients or caregivers -- most of them strangers -- every month.

America's fight against cancer has taken a long road.

Forty years ago President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer by signing the National Cancer Act. Also in 1971, the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center became one of seven federally funded centers, all of them tasked to advance understanding of cancer and translate that knowledge to prevention, detection, treatment and survivorship.

That boils down to providing the highest quality of life for people diagnosed with cancer, along with advancing the world's understanding of cancer, Partridge said.

Yet after 40 years of research nationwide, and despite some vast strides, cancer is still the second-leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease.

"We have to be optimistic," Partridge said. "We now have overall survival rates of 65 percent. We've made substantial progress in the early detection of some major cancers, especially breast, colorectal and cervical.

"We've made major improvements in the treatment of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer," he said. "We've made a substantial reduction in the mortality from tobacco-related cancers."

And, Partridge said, "We have recognized in the last decade the importance of physical activity and good nutrition in preventing cancer."

Center progress

Progress at the Comprehensive Cancer Center in the past year includes:

Renewal of the Cancer Center core grant, with $27.3 million over five years.

Creation of a Cancer Care Network to provide the highest quality of care possible, working with affiliates across Alabama and in neighboring states.

Research accomplishments that include federal funding of a Pancreatic Specialized Program of Research Excellence grant for $11.3 million over five years to bring new treatments from the lab to the patient, and also identification of a gene that's responsible for one-fourth of the glioblastoma brain tumors in humans, a finding that the American Society of Clinical Oncology called one of its top 10 discoveries of the year, Partridge said.

After Buchsbaum and Arnoletti talk of research advances in pancreatic cancer, and LaVercombe shares his "miracle and a really interesting journey," the public will have a chance to talk with doctors and researchers during an hour-long reception.

This community involvement by survivors and families of all types of cancers is an important part of UAB's cancer research and treatment efforts.

"The power of the community is amazing," said Arnoletti. "It is critical to have the public involved."

LaVercombe said the audience will include his family. He and his wife have three children and five grandchildren, all living in the Birmingham metro area.

The UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center's Progress and Promise annual report to the public is 6 to 7 p.m. in the Alys Stephens Center, followed by the reception from 7 to 8 p.m.

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