Mar 01, 2019 8:00 AM

A large group of doctors in white coats stands together
Providers from the Center of Excellence in Hematologic Malignancies and Hematology at Huntsman Cancer Institute

What we call cancer is in fact more than 200 different diseases, often broken into two major categories: solid tumors such as breast, colon, and prostate cancers; and cancers that happen in blood-forming, or hematologic, tissues.

The Center of Excellence in Hematologic Malignancies and Hematology at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a group of more than three dozen doctors and scientists dedicated to hematologic cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Their guiding principle is collaboration across disciplines to improve clinical care and advance research.

The passion for making an impact in blood cancers that leads to better treatments, better prevention strategies, and advancing research is a commitment shared by our faculty, patients, and community members.

Driving Toward an Impact:

How a Diverse Group of Cancer Care Providers, Scientists, and Students is Working Together to Advance Research in Blood Cancers

Michael Deininger MD PHD stands in the lab wearing a white coat
Michael Deininger, MD, PhD

"It takes a village to address these complicated diseases," says Michael Deininger, MD, PhD, director of the Center of Excellence. And the village is growing. Dr. Deininger recruited more than 20 new doctors and researchers to the team, adding key expertise in areas such as multiple myeloma, immunotherapy, and lymphoma. Another effort focuses on getting expert care to patients in rural areas. This group collaborates across cancer research and care and also trains students working toward careers in these fields.

Advances in hematologic cancers have been among the most celebrated. In the 1950s, the survival of children diagnosed with leukemia was practically zero. Today, the survival rate is nearly 90 percent. New therapies have turned chronic myeloid leukemia from a lethal cancer into a chronic condition that can be effectively managed for decades, with good quality of life. Despite this progress, in the United States, blood cancers still strike about 175,000 people each year and result in the death of one person every nine minutes, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

Dr. Deininger and his colleagues have worked to position HCI as a key player in hematologic cancer research and treatment. In the last year, HCI joined the Beat AML trial, a national clinical trial sponsored by LLS. This allows acute myeloid leukemia patients in the Mountain West to access several clinical trials testing new targeted therapies and to receive individualized therapy. Also, HCI became the first adult hospital in the region to offer CAR T cell therapy, a new approach that uses the patient's own immune cells to target the cancer cells in B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Dr. Deininger sees big things in the future for research, care, and prevention of hematologic cancers. He views HCI's Hematologic Malignancies Center of Excellence as a model for how to organize teams poised to make an impact. "We have the opportunity to break down barriers and develop better ways to care for patients," he says. "This integration and collaboration across disciplines is exactly what we need to improve outcomes for patients."

When a Doctor Needs a Doctor

Robert Berlin, MD, a radiologist at St. John's Medical Center in Jackson, Wyoming, knows firsthand what it is like to be a patient. Robert consulted with Paul Shami, MD, a hematologist at HCI, about an issue he had—a possible blood condition that could turn into leukemia. While traveling out of state, Robert became ill and was admitted to a local emergency department. As his condition worsened and no diagnosis was made, his wife, Emily Knobloch, MD, called Dr. Shami for advice.

Dr. Shami correctly diagnosed a rare and life-threatening blood disorder. Robert was flown to HCI immediately, where he received appropriate treatment and recovered. Robert and his wife credit Dr. Shami with saving his life. In fact, they named their new rescue dog "Dr. Shami" in honor of the lifesaving rescue Robert received at HCI.

Emily, her family foundation, and Robert have generously contributed to HCI. Robert will continue to support Dr. Shami's research, with the intention of additional gifts on an annual basis.

Empathy through Experience: From Patient to Volunteer

A woman volunteering at huntsman cancer institute
Sandy Crandall, cancer survivor and volunteer

Volunteers give HCI 12,000 hours of their time each year. They provide many significant services to support HCI staff and patients. Each volunteer has a reason for devoting their time to HCI.

Sandy Crandell's motivation began in 2015. She was suffering from stroke-like symptoms and debilitating migraines. Her doctors diagnosed her with stage IV intravascular lymphoma, a rare blood cancer that affects the brain. For more than two months, her home was a hospital room.

Today, Sandy volunteers in that same unit. "I just want to give back and talk to patients and give them some hope, that just like me, they can get through it," she says.

Sandy started volunteering in September 2016. Her personal experience adds depth to her visits with patients. "You can talk to your family and friends and they listen and support you, but they can't totally relate because they aren't going through it," she says. "I think I connect with patients because I've lived it."

I just want to give back and talk to patients and give them some hope, that just like me, they can get through it.

Sandy Crandall

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Cancer touches all of us.

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