Surviving and thriving 

After surviving four bouts of cancer, Hamilton Jordan knows he’s lucky. “My life has never seemed more important and precious to me,” he says.

Jordan was White House Chief of Staff in 1979 and 1980, during the Carter Administration. He was in Savannah recently to speak at the grand opening of the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion at St. Joseph’s/Candler.

“There’s an epidemic of cancer in this country. By 2010, 50 percent of all American will have or have had cancer in their life,” Jordan says.

“It’s due to the decline of other diseases. More of us are living to older age, and cancer is generally a disease of older age.”

Since leaving Washington, Jordan has focused on promoting public health issues, particularly those concerning cancer.

“People think because I have had cancer I have many answers,” Jordan says. “I don’t. Life is tremendously fragile.

“We will never know how long we have to live. I certainly don’t take life for granted.”

Local treatment centers such as the Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion and the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute at Memorial Health, will mean a tremendous difference in local cancer patients’ lives, Jordan says. “Savannah is very fortunate,” he says.

The two centers allow patients to receive advanced care utilizing the latest treatments, all in one location, without requiring them to travel to larger cities such as Atlanta, New York or Dallas. Patients also have access to clinical trials, which offer the benefits of the most recent research.

Will Savannah ever be recognized as a cancer treatment destination point, such as centers found in larger urban centers? Local health experts say it not only could but probably will happen, as the process already has begun.

“We’re bringing together the best and the brightest in cancer care,” says Dr. Herbert C. Hoover, Jr., Director and Chief of Surgical Oncology at the Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion.

Local cancer patients no longer need to go outside the region, Hoover says. “They’ll receive care here that is second to none in the country,” he says.

To have a facility as significant as the Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion in a city the size of Savannah would place the city well ahead of others of comparable size. When you consider that Savannah has a second significant cancer facility in the Anderson Cancer Institute, it is downright astounding.

Dr. William J. Hoskins, director of the Anderson Cancer Institute, came to Savannah in 2001 from the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he was deputy physician-in-chief of the disease management teams.

“We pretty much offer the full range of the spectrum,” Hoskins says. “The only thing we are not doing at this point in time are bone marrow transplants.”

But bone marrow transplants will be performed in Savannah within a year or so, Hoskins says. “For patients, that means they have an extraordinary level of clinical care, clinical research and laboratory research in the field of cancer,” he says. “We need to make people aware of the services that are available.”

In July, the William and Iffath Hoskins Center for Biomedical Research will open at Memorial. The facility will be devoted to studying the genetics of cancer, and scientists are being recruited to staff it.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, second only to heart disease. While more cancer cases are being diagnosed, it is because of the aging of the population.

“We’re seeing a huge blip as the Baby Boomers come into the cancer-age group,” Hoskins says. “With the exception of pediatric cancers and some rare cancers, most cancers occur over age 50.”

But fortunately, as the number of new cases rises, so does the cure rate. “As we cure more patients, we have to follow a larger number of patients,” Hoskins says.

An entirely new field in cancer research has emerged as researchers look at long-time survivors of pediatric cancer to see how treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation early in life have affected them in adulthood.

“Most of the advances in pediatric cancer occurred during the last 20 years,” Hoskins says. “Twenty years ago, the patients all died. Now 70 to 80 percent of pediatric cancers are cured.”

Hoskins’ speciality is gynecological cancer treatment. “If you look at all gynecological cancers -- cervical, endometrial, ovarian -- 60 to 70 percent will be cured,” he says. “Same thing for breast cancer and prostate cancer.”

Early detection is key, but there aren’t screenings for all types of cancers. However, recognition of early symptoms is saving more patients, Hoskins says.

Targeted treatments with “smart” drugs, typically used to treat advanced cancers, are lengthening lives. But if the strides made over the past 20 years seem amazing, just wait.

“I think we’ve made an enormous amount of progress in the last two decades,” Hoskins says. “But the progress made in the next two decades will make them look like the Dark Ages.”

Not only will new drugs and treatments be introduced, existing ones will be refined. “That will mean fewer side effects,” Hoskins says.

“In some areas, such as ovarian cancers, we’re starting to think maybe not in terms of five-year survival, but in terms of 10-year survival,” Hoskins says. “It is being converted from a fatal disease into a chronic disease. We can control it for a longer period of time.”

More patients are living with cancer instead of dying from it. There’s even hope that some types of cancers can be prevented.

“Within a year, there’s going to be a vaccine available for the prevention of cervical cancer,” Hoskins says. “We know it occurs as a result of a sexually transmitted virus and we now have a vaccine. This is a disease that could be eliminated with proper vaccination of children.”

Hoover was recruited for the Lewis Pavilion post from the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Penn., where he had worked for more than a decade.

“Four months ago, I stood at a podium and explained my decision to move to Georgia,” he says. “I said I’d been preparing my whole life for this particular job.”

The new job combines Hoover’s two passions -- cancer care and research. “We hope to add the best and brightest oncology talent available,” he says. “This will have a huge impact on the area and its economic development.”

The Lewis center will focus on holistic healing. “We’re treating the entire person, not just physically and biologically, but emotionally and spiritually,” Hoover says.

“The spiritual element is a big part of this new facility,” he says. “We’re taking cancer care to another level, for the patient and for the patient’s family as well.”

The focus on a holistic approach can be seen in the way both centers are designed. There is a serenity garden with its own waterfall at the Anderson Cancer Institute, while the Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion has a butterfly garden, a labyrinth where patients can walk, and a stone bridge in a meditation area.

The entire spectrum of cancer care from diagnosis to recovery is covered. The Lewis facility boasts a boutique, called Renewal, where breast cancer patients cay buy prosthetics, wigs, scarves, makeup and even bathing suits designed just for them.

Both health systems offer numerous support groups and services for cancer patients. “That’s one of our strong suits,” Hoskins says. “In terms of support services, we have more here than Sloan-Kettering.”

St. Joseph’s/Candler President and CEO Paul P. Hinchey says planning for the Lewis center began three years ago with the formation of a committee to focus on the development of a major cancer program. A national search for architects and contractors followed.

“We broke ground in June 2004,” Hinchey says. “Butterfly plants were given out and the recipients were asked to come back and place them in front of the building.”

The butterfly theme is a constant at the pavilion, which itself is laid out in wings to resemble a butterfly. The butterfly signifies healing, Hinchey says.

“Life is a series of new beginnings,” he says. “We’re attempting to capture that spirit.”

Such progress would not have been possible without the generosity of philanthropists such as the Andersons and Lewises.

“When Mr. and Mrs. Lewis so generously agreed to be involved in our vision, we asked them if they would allow us to name the pavilion after them,” Hinchey says.

“Mr. Lewis asked, ‘Is that necessary?’ We told him the panache of the Lewis name might encourage others to donate, so he said, ‘All right, if you think it will help.’”

Lewis, a businessman and a former mayor of Savannah, lost his own battle with leukemia at the age of 79. “My father wanted to do his part in the fight against cancer,” says his son, Walter Lewis.

“He thought about supporting research centers around the world, even one in India,” Walter Lewis says. “One thing that was clear in his mind, he wanted to make a meaningful difference to cancer patients.”

During his own treatment, Lewis traveled to Houston for care. “He knew he was blessed he could afford to do that,” Walter Lewis says. “He knew it was something that was not possible for the average person.”

So Lewis decided to look closer to home and help give local residents better access to cancer care. “He and my mother prayed about it,” Walter Lewis says. “If Dad were here today, he’d be really pleased.”

Dr. John Niederhuber, Deputy Director of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., has been involved in the development of the Lewis Pavilion from the start. The facility will serve as a model for other community cancer treatment centers, he says.

“We want to bring the treatment to the patient, not have the patient go to the treatment,” Niederhuber says. “This is a wonderful building. It is, though, just a building. A building is only as great as the people and programs you put in it. We have made tremendous progress.”

Such centers not only will help local residents, they will bring Georgia to the forefront of cancer care, says William Todd, President and CEO of the Georgia Cancer Coalition. “It’s about moving Georgia from a laggard state to being a leading state in cancer care,” Todd says.

Hamilton Jordan is one of the founders of the Georgia Cancer Coalition and his wife, Dorothy, is a pediatric oncology nurse. Together the Jordans started Camp Sunshine Retreat for young oncology patients.

Jordan himself became a cancer patient when he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1985. “They found a tumor the size of a baseball in my chest,” he says.

A biopsy confirmed the tumor was malignant. As Jordan returned home with his wife and then 6-month-old son, he wondered if he would live to see his son’s first birthday.

“I figured I had about a 20 percent chance of being alive in five years,” Jordan says.

A friend from Savannah, Dr. Albert Wall, convinced Jordan to partner with his doctors to fight the cancer. Jordan began studying lymphoma and discovered a clinical trial that was resulting in a 60-70 percent rate of remission.

Treatment involved six months of chemotherapy with six different drugs. “No matter how badly I felt, I was determined not to let cancer totally dominate my life,” Jordan says.

“I was very, very lucky. That big mass just melted away. I still had to go through all the chemotherapy, but I knew I had a chance to beat cancer.”

Ten years later, Jordan was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but because it was found early, his odds of beating it were greatly improved.

Then came a third diagnosis, melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Jordan has recovered from it, also, as well as a second bout of skin cancer that was not as serious as the first.

Jordan wrote a best-selling book, No Such Thing as a Bad Day. “I’ve learned a lot about cancer, myself and life,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a bad day. If we lived that way, all our lives will be fuller and better.”

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Linda Sickler

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