A Comprehensive Cancer Center Designated by the National Cancer Institute

Pathways to Discovery: Winter 2011

Reputation, Teamwork Help Create ‘Worry-Free’ Experience for Cancer Patient

We have learned that if we are more aggressive with our therapy upfront, there is a better outcome for our patients.
—Elizabeth Blair, MD

The University of Chicago is renowned for its innovative treatments and better-than-average outcomes for head and neck cancer patients, especially those treated with concurrent chemotherapy and radiation therapy—a technique pioneered here.

Studies conducted at The University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) found that this therapy, now a standard of care, provided complete local control of advanced head and neck cancer for more than 90% of UCMC patients and an 80% long-term survival rate without disease progression.

When retired North Shore lawyer John Lynch was referred to the UCMC, he was aware of that impressive success rate.

In October 2008, Lynch was shaving and noticed a bump the size of a raisin on his neck. Because of a previous successful battle against melanoma, Lynch immediately made an appointment with his primary care physician.

The physician initially prescribed antibiotics and later referred him to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Tests showed Lynch had squamous cell carcinoma; however, because of some unsettled feelings he and his wife were having about his care, Lynch met with the physician who treated him for melanoma.

The cancer diagnosis was confirmed, but Lynch was told that his tumor was a secondary malignancy, not the primary source of the cancer. That is when Lynch was referred to head and neck cancer specialists at the UCMC.

“I feel very privileged to have been treated by Elizabeth Blair, MD, Daniel Haraf, MD, MS, and the rest of the team,” said Lynch. “They worked together and independently to find the primary source of the tumor, and Dr. Blair operated on Christmas Eve 2008.”

The tumor had grown, so Dr. Blair also had to remove some of his lymph nodes, tonsils, and some of his inner cheek. Lynch went home on Christmas day, returning 2 weeks later to see Dr. Haraf and begin radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Throughout the process, Lynch continued to eat—milk shakes, mashed potatoes, and other soft foods—which he said helped set the tone for a good quality of life. “I have some minor problems like dry mouth and salivary blockages, but I feel great,” Lynch said. “I’m very active.”

Dr. Blair credits the overall care that the UCMC provides for the successful outcomes seen in many head and neck cancer patients. “When we talk about being a comprehensive cancer center, it’s not enough to just perform chemotherapy and radiation therapy,” explained Dr. Blair. “The surgery and helping a patient manage really important functions, like using their voice and swallowing, is a big part of the quality of care. We have learned that if we are more aggressive with our therapy upfront, there is a better outcome for our patients.”

She said regular communication among the oncologists, radiation therapists, surgeons, and therapists is also important. “We don’t hesitate to question or challenge or critically review what we do and what our results are,” she said. “It is a healthy, team environment that makes it better for our patients.”

From a patient perspective, Lynch said he feels lucky to have been treated at the UCMC. “I was never worried—not for even a single day,” said Lynch.

Now, more than 2 years later, he is still cancer free.