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News Release

Cancer-survivor state legislators honor UCCC

1/29/2010
Sen. Heath thanks Dr. Norio Fukami for saving his life

Heath, Primaverra and Merrifield sponsor joint resolution to honor doctors, center, that saved their lives

AURORA, Colo. (Jan. 29, 2010)—The University of Colorado Cancer Center (UCCC), University of Colorado School of Medicine and University of Colorado Hospital were honored by the Colorado Legislature on Friday with a joint resolution, sponsored by three cancer survivors who credit UCCC members for saving their lives.

Senate Joint Resolution 10-009 was brought forward by esophagus cancer survivor Sen. Rollie Heath, breast cancer survivor Rep. Dianne Primavera and throat cancer survivor Rep. Mike Merrifield.

Sen. Heath thanks Dr. Norio Fukami for saving his life. Photo: Todd Neff, University of Colorado Hospital.

“All three of us are cancer survivors, all three have been treated at the Cancer Center, and all three of us are here to tell the story,” Heath said.

Heath was diagnosed with Stage I esophageal cancer in July 2009. He came to UCCC and University of Colorado Hospital, where he met Dr. Norio Fukami, a therapeutic endoscopist and assistant professor of gastroenterology at CU School of Medicine. The current standard of treatment for early esophageal cancer involves an "open" operation during which the surgeon removes a big part of the esophagus, then stretches the stomach to attach to the remaining esophagus. The procedure can take months to recover.

But Fukami, who trained in Japan and at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, chose to do an advanced, minimally invasive endotherapy using an endoscope and a special knife to cut out just the tumor and surrounding tissue, leaving the esophagus in place. The operation is new to the United States, and Fukami is conducting research to show the procedure can be safe and effective.

Heath credits Dr. Fukami not only with saving his life, but also with saving him from lost work time and pain due to his advanced techniques. He was back to work the day after his procedure.

“I had not gone to Houston, I had not gone to Rochester and Mayo, I had not gone to Cleveland, I had gone to the Aurora campus of the University of Colorado Hospital and the Cancer Center,” Sen. Heath said. “It took me 20 minutes to get there.”

Primaverra offered emotional testimony about Dr. William Robinson, professor of medical oncology at CU School of Medicine, who she credits with allowing her to outlive one doctor’s suggestion that she would need to find someone to raise her then preschool-aged children.

“With his excellent care and skill, he gave me hope, he gave me health and he gave me my life back,” she said. “Twenty-one years later, I’m still here against all odds. I’ve taught my girls to drive and taken their prom pictures, and one day I will walk them down the aisle. Dr. Robinson, I owe you my life.”

Merrifield recounted his experience receiving daily radiation therapy from Dr. David Raben and chemotherapy from Dr. Madeleine Kane for this throat cancer.

“I expressed to (Raben) my fear mainly that I would never be able to sing again, and he was the first person who gave me a reason to feel positive,” Merrifield said. “Today I am cancer free. My gratitude is not just as a representative who understands the value of this center for Colorado, but as a human being who understands on a heart-to-heart basis what these individuals have done for me.”

Other legislators stepped up to offer their testimony about and support of UCCC, the School of Medicine and UCH. Several offered personal stories about their loved ones’ care at the center.

Sen. Mike Kopp spoke about his wife’s cancer treatment at UCCC, describing that their research into the best place for her to get care led them to University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

“Everybody said drive down the street and get to this campus,” he said. “We heeded the advice of the pathologist and the oncologist. My wife is cancer free. These doctors are healing people.”

Kopp said has joined the University of Colorado Hospital’s Cancer Expansion Committee to raise money for an expansion of the Anschutz Cancer Pavilion, which 10 years after it opened is out of space.

Sen. Suzanne Williams, who worked to move the CU medical enterprise to the Anschutz Medical Campus in the late 1990s, said: “The Anschutz Medical Campus is a huge economic boon to the City of Aurora and to the region, bringing approximately $2 billion to the region. What this campus will mean to the state of Colorado is the ultimate crown: it will become known as the cancer center, the medical center of the West.”

Sen. Nancy Spence also revealed that she and her husband Pete participate in the Prostate, Lung, Ovarian and Colorectal Cancer Screening Trial at UCCC, a long-term study funded by the National Cancer Institute.

“We’re so impressed by the wonderful PLCO program, and thank all of you for coming forward with that program so that ordinary citizens like us have an opportunity to help you with your researcher,” Spence said.

Dr. Andrew Thorburn, UCCC interim director, was among a dozen center and university representatives on hand for the joint resolution’s introduction and passage.

“We’re the cancer center for the state of Colorado,” he said. “It’s really nice that we are getting this recognition and appreciation from our elected officials.”

The University of Colorado Cancer Center is the Rocky Mountain region’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center. NCI has given only 40 cancer centers this designation, deeming membership as “the best of the best.”

Headquartered on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, UCCC is a consortium of three state universities (Colorado State University, University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Colorado Denver) and five institutions (The Children’s Hospital, Denver Health, Denver VA Medical Center, National Jewish Health and University of Colorado Hospital).

Together, our 450 members are working to ease the cancer burden through cancer care, research, education and prevention and control. Learn more at www.uccc.info.

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Contact: Lynn Clark, 303.724.3160, lynn.clark@ucdenver.edu