A diagnosis of cancer is a terrifying thing, but Sky Valley residents should know that Valley General Hospital offers state-of-the-art cancer care treatments equal to or better than those offered at other community hospitals anywhere in the country, said oncologist James Congdon last week.
“We have a full spectrum of medical oncology practice in Monroe,” said Congdon, who has practiced in Monroe for 11 years. “We have outpatient chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.”
Chemotherapy remains the standard treatment for cancer, and the fact that area residents can get treatment without leaving the valley is a blessing for people who aren’t feeling well, he said.
Immunotherapy is a newer form of treatment. Particularly effective for malignant melanoma and kidney cancers, it attacks cancer cells by targeting their immune status.
Targeted therapy is the wave of the future, said Congdon. For all the havoc cancer cells wreak on the system, they are remarkably similar to the rest of the cells in the body, said Congdon. So scientists have been looking for an “achilles heel,” something that sets cancer cells apart from other cells that would give scientist something to attack.
In recent years, they have begin finding some of those things.
“We have found proteins in cancer cells and we attack those proteins,” he said, offering breast cancer and lymphoma as two cancers that respond well to that treatment.
In other cancers, such as chronic myelogenous leukemia, there are enzymes present that medicine can target.
“In some cancers, we can identify a specific genetic mutation within the cancer cell and target those mutations,” said Congdon. “Prime examples are breast cancer and some forms of lung cancer.”
The practice of targeted therapy is still in its infancy, but within 10-15 years, it will be the primary way to treat most cancers, he predicted.
“It’s an exciting time for cancer medicine,” he said.
Much of the cutting edge research on cancer treatments is being done in Seattle, particularly at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
That means that patients in Monroe often have increased access to clinical trials.
There are very few cancers that can’t be treated in Monroe, Congdon said.
“About the only cancers we don’t routinely handle are acute leukemia patients, as they require resources we don’t have in Monroe,” he said. “And we don’t do radiation therapy because the investment cost is into millions of dollars, but patients can go to Everett or Evergreen.”
And people who do have cancers that are untreatable in Monroe can invariably get the care they need in Seattle, said Congdon.
“We have probably half a dozen patients from Monroe who are probably cured of leukemia due to stem cell transplants at SCCA,” he said.
So, although cancer is scary, knowing that excellent care is close at hand should come as a comfort, Congdon said.
“Once a patient is diagnosed they have access to state of the art therapy,” he said. “It doesn’t get any more advanced anywhere else in the country.”