by Vicki Hildner
As an Air Force pilot, as a businessman who led a $400 million division of a world-wide company, and as president and CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science since 2004, George Sparks is a man who is not easily frightened.
But in early 2007, when Sparks’ physician told him that, after initial treatments, his bladder cancer
had returned even more aggressively, he admits to being “terrified.”
Then his doctor said something that eventually would take the terror out of cancer. “I should probably send you to someone here at our hospital,” he said, “but I’m going to send you to the best in Colorado—and she’s at the Anschutz Medical Campus
“Once every 10 years, like most guys”
Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Sparks assumed his worst enemy would be heart disease. He ran and exercised and went to the doctor “once every 10 years, like most guys.”
All that changed on July 25, 2006, his birthday. He had consulted with a doctor after noticing blood in his urine, and for the first time, he heard his name and the word cancer in the same sentence. “It was chilling,” he remembered. “Just hearing the word ‘cancer’ knocks you off your pins.”
After initial treatments for the cancer failed to slow its progression, he had that fateful conversation with his physician. He remembers considering care at well-known locations across the country, including the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
“And then I took a look at the Anschutz Medical Campus,” he said, “and I thought ‘We have the best cancer center here. I want to stay close to home. So why would I go anywhere else?’”
“No better place in the country”
“George Sparks is one of my favorite people in Denver,” said Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD
. “He has passion and he’s very smart. We like to talk science.”
As director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center
, Theodorescu is the leader of the Rocky Mountain region’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center.
His goal is to reinvent how cancer research is done in Colorado, and his work is getting national recognition. When Vice Admiral Matthew Nathan
, Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy, toured Theodorescu’s lab, he told campus leadership, “I’m quite sure there’s no better place in the country to get care for bladder cancer.”
Those words were music to Theodorescu’s ears. “I know what I do, but it’s nice when other people recognize what we do,” he said.
Nathan got a first-hand look at Theodorescu’s research with innovative, personalized medicine and molecular therapeutics at every step in the treatment of cancer:
- Tailoring chemotherapy to the biology of a tumor because certain tumors respond better to certain drugs;
- Developing customized, targeted therapeutics by studying tumors; and
- Discovering biomarkers that predict which cancers are aggressive and should be treated with chemotherapy before surgery.
Theodorescu has his work cut out for him. Advanced bladder cancer is likely to metastasize to the lung, liver or bone. Fewer than 10 percent of patients survive metastatic bladder cancer.
“Caught and treated early”
At the Anschutz Medical Campus, Sparks met his surgeon, Shandra Wilson, MD
, in March of 2007 for a one-hour conversation. “In that conversation, she gained my trust,” he said. “I believed in her ethically, scientifically and personally.”
Wilson removed Sparks’ bladder and prostate and rebuilt his bladder using his small intestine. Today, five years later, Sparks laughs when he says, “Every time I pee, I think of how lucky I am.”
“He was lucky,” said Theodorescu. “His cancer was caught and treated early.”
For the not-so-lucky, Theodorescu predicts his research will produce significant advances in the next five to seven years. “Our goal is to prevent death from metastatic bladder cancer, period. Nothing else will do,” he said.
“We really need to appreciate it more”
At the Museum of Science and Nature, George Sparks is in the unique position to actually rub elbows with Philip Anschutz whose initial gift launched the eponymous campus. “I have told him ‘Thanks for what you have done there,’” said Sparks. “I think he liked being thanked.”
And from a cancer survivor who runs a world-class museum, it comes as high praise when Sparks says, “Anschutz Medical Campus is a world-class institution. Everything—the doctors, the hospital, the teaching—we really need to appreciate it more.”
Published: July 2, 2012