Inova Schar Cancer Institute Reaches 5th Anniversary

Inova Schar Cancer Institute Reaches 5th Anniversary

Interview with John Deeken, MD, institute president

Inova Schar Cancer Institute reaches 5th anniversary

Inova Schar Cancer Institute reaches 5th anniversary

Nine years after philanthropist Dwight Schar and his wife Martha donated  $50 million to develop a medical campus for cancer research, genomics, and personalized medicine, Fairfax Hospital's Inova Schar Cancer Institute celebrates its fifth anniversary. Launched on May 13, 2019, Inova Schar offers patient-centered care and treatment modalities under one roof of its state-of-the-art facility. Newsweek and Becker's Hospital Review recognizes Inova Schar as a top oncology program.

John Deeken, MD

Inova Schar's president and head and neck cancer program director is John Deeken, MD. “We've grown tremendously and provided care to thousands and thousands of Northern Virginians who received the worst news of their lives: cancer," Deeken says. “But there are no big events this time; we must treat patients.”

While passing on the fanfare and cake, Deeken reflected on Inova Schar's journey and how its original promise continues. That promise is to provide patient-centered expert care to help Northern Virginia patients with their treatment.

The Department of Advanced Radiation Oncology and Proton Therapy at Inova Schar Cancer Institute treated its 1000th patient last month, four years after beginning to offer the service. Reaching the milestone is a significant achievement for the Inova Mather Proton Therapy Center, as it witnesses the transformative potential of proton therapy in improving outcomes and enhancing the quality of life for cancer patients.

According to Deeken, over the past five years, Inova Schar has grown patient volumes by more than fifty percent, gained confidence, and offered cutting-edge cancer treatments that are changing cancer treatment. 

By studying tumor genomic mutations, Inova Schar is entering a new cancer treatment era. Understanding genetic mutations and changes improves treatment response and reduces targeted therapy side effects. Inova Schar was one of six sites in the country to pioneer matching patient therapy in an accelerated larotrectinib clinical study, which was successful for cancer. 

"That's just one example of a home run with a new drug that targeted a specific mutation in cancer across different solid tumors in adults and pediatric patients," says Deeken. 

Asked about other trials, Deeken says, "If not home runs, certainly doubles and singles." Inova Schar participated in a national effort by the American Society of Clinical Oncology to test multiple drugs across tumors similarly. Inova Schar led the country in enrollment and had their senior physician lead it. "We pioneered immunotherapy clinical trials, transforming cancer treatment," says Deeken.

Inova Schar is "very excited about" its Inova Saville Cancer Screening and Prevention Center. "Earlier detection increases the chance of curing cancer," says Deeken. "If patients don't have a primary care physician, they can just come to us directly; we can take care of them."

Inova, Northern Virginia's nonprofit community health system, provides cancer screenings and care to uninsured patients through its charity program. Non-average cancer-risk individuals and cancer patients can receive comprehensive screening services. Deeken says Inova Schar offers colonoscopies, lung cancer screenings, and other screenings for patients with BRCA1, BRCA2 gene mutations, and other genetic predispositions to cancer. "Our comprehensive cancer screening for patients and families includes all types."

Cancer is an emotional and psychological rollercoaster, so treatment is only part of the Inova Schar experience. From their first phone call to their first consultation, oncology nurse navigators help new patients start treatment and transfer it to the care team to reduce their burden. "We know that hearing the awful 'C word' and then having to coordinate the extensive scheduling for the patient or their family is too much. We help patients navigate the first steps of their journey,” says Deeken. "Inova Schar will build on its reputation and trust." 

Free programs help cancer patients and their families live well. Inova Schar offers a nationally recognized program, Inova Life with Cancer. It addresses all patient aspects of life and care and provides personalized counseling, support groups, psychiatry services, nutrition and exercise classes, acupuncture, and more. Deeken says the program is recognized nationwide and integrated into all their care sites.

Caring for those with cancer is a special calling for those on the front lines of cancer treatment: doctors, clinic nurses, infusion nurses, phone operators, and others, because, after that awful news, patients trust them. "It is an intimate, powerful, and humbling experience," says Deeken. “It's one that often we succeed in curing their cancer through a very difficult treatment.” It happens less and less often, but still too often, that the cancer can’t be cured, Deekin says. 

“We learned resilience from COVID-19,” he says. “We worked together and gained strength from each other in our cancer program, but we have much more now than five years ago. As our patients' journeys continue, the team works, celebrates, and mourns together, which is another strength."