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When It Comes to Cancer Care Where People Seek Care Impacts Outcomes

When 50-year-old John Whartnaby of Fargo, N.D., was given the relatively rare diagnosis of malignant melanoma in 2002, he sought treatment at MeritCare Roger Maris Cancer Center. Malignant melanoma is the least common, but most dangerous type of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 62,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2006; nearly 8,000 people died of the disease. Since 2000, doctors at MeritCare have treated 207 cases.

When 50-year-old John Whartnaby of Fargo, N.D., was given the relatively rare diagnosis of malignant melanoma in 2002, he sought treatment at MeritCare Roger Maris Cancer Center. Malignant melanoma is the least common, but most dangerous type of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 62,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2006; nearly 8,000 people died of the disease. Since 2000, doctors at MeritCare have treated 207 cases.

Whartnaby was offered two treatment options, one of them being the opportunity to participate in a national clinical trial. He viewed the trial option as the best for him because it offered the most aggressive treatment. Clinical trials are not offered at all health-care facilities; it's one of the things that sets the MeritCare Roger Maris Cancer Center apart from others. (When patients participate in clinical trials, they receive either the standard medical treatment, or treatment that is considered to be as good or better than the standard.)

Now, five years later, Whartnaby is cancer free and is leading a very full life, teaching health classes and coaching men's basketball and women's golf at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., and teaching physical education and health at Oak Grove High School, Fargo.

According to the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer (COC), the national organization that sets the gold standard for cancer care, where a patient seeks care does impact their outcome. The organization recently awarded MeritCare with an outstanding achievement award as a Community Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Program (COMP); MeritCare is only one of 31 organizations in the nation to receive the award (for 2006), and the only facility in North Dakota in this category. (Two facilities in Minnesota and one in South Dakota received the award.)

One of the reasons MeritCare received the award is because of its depth of participation in clinical trials - award recipients have to have at least 4 percent of their patients involved in a clinical trial; MeritCare has 15 percent. In fact, at any given time, MeritCare patients (children and adults) are participating in over 100 clinical trials (some are to prevent cancer, some are to treat cancer, and some are to manage a patient's symptoms). Research shows that facilities that offer clinical trials are better prepared to provide the most current treatment options.

When Whartnaby was asked why he felt it was important that clinical trials be made available to patients, he said, "It just comes from my background as an educator. If we're going to beat these diseases, people need to learn from them. I felt that if things didn't work out for me, it may help someone else down the road." Participating wasn't a new concept since Whartnaby's father had also participated in a clinical trial years ago. Dr. Leitch, executive partner, MeritCare Roger Maris Cancer Center, says "It's taken us a lot of work over the years to be able to provide patients from throughout the region the depth and breadth of services that we offer. We received this award because of these services, the quality of care given, and because our patients are willing to participate in clinical trials. It's all about providing patients, now and in the future, with excellent cancer care."

There are 12 types of awards that are given by the COC; in order for MeritCare to receive the Community Hospital Cancer Program award, it:
  • had to treat 650 or more newly diagnosed cancer cases in a year (in 2006, MeritCare actually treated over 1,400 newly diagnosed patients)
  • has to provide a full range of diagnostic and treatment services
  • has to offer clinical research studies to patients
  • has to have doctors that are board certified in major medical specialties (medical and radiation oncology, diagnostic radiology, pathology and general surgery)

Additional information:
  • For more information on the award categories, go to facs.org/cancer.
  • MeritCare Roger Maris Cancer Center staff includes: 10 medical oncologists/hematologists (two are board certified in palliative care), two pediatric oncologists/hematologists, three radiation oncologists, three radiation physicists, four hospitalists board certified in palliative care, a breast surgeon, a genetic risk assessment doctor, a licensed cancer psychologist, four nurse practitioners, two physician assistants, certified cancer nurses, a nurse breast cancer coordinator, a nurse lung cancer coordinator, pharmacists with cancer treatment expertise, chaplains, social workers, dietitians and physical therapists.
  • MeritCare treats cancer patients from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
  • As a Community Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Program (COMP), MeritCare has access to the National Cancer Institute's sponsored research studies.

Learn more at www.facs.org.