Dr. James Willson explains why where you first seek cancer care is important


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James Willson, M.D., is Director of Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, a post he has held for more than 10 years. A medical oncologist, he is renowned for his work in the genetics of colorectal cancer.

What's the advantage of being treated at a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center?

Along with offering the highest-quality care, NCI-designated cancer centers are constantly probing cancer’s mysteries. They conduct exploratory research into the disease and then take their discoveries and translate them into effective new treatments. In fact, new and improved therapies developed at NCI cancer centers, such as UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, have helped significantly increase the number of cancer survivors and greatly enhanced patients’ quality of life. That’s an important, lifesaving difference you won’t find just anywhere. It’s one of the reasons we say that where you first seek cancer care is important.

What does it mean to be designated a comprehensive cancer center?

The NCI further distinguishes some of its designated cancer centers with a comprehensive status, an even more elite distinction. There are only 45 comprehensive centers in the entire country, and Simmons Cancer Center is one of them. These top-shelf cancer centers are dedicated to improving results in how to manage disease, so they’re up to date on the latest findings and armed with information on what works, as well as the latest options for cancer treatments. NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers are committed to making available the latest technologies for imaging and diagnosing and to tailoring treatments to a patient’s specific situation. Comprehensive cancer centers such as Simmons also engage in outreach efforts aimed at prevention and screening to help diagnose and assess cancer risks across the broader community. That’s important because 5 to 10 percent of the population has genetically identifiable cancer risks.

How does comprehensive care translate for individual patients?

Patients’ ability to find the best fit for treatment of their cancer and tailor it to other health issues they may have, such as diabetes or heart conditions, calls for integrative care—the ability to pull together a team of experts from various fields. Simmons Cancer Center includes more than 200 members from over 30 departments and offers more than a dozen major cancer care programs. Integration is a critical component in distinguishing cancer centers and is core to the care philosophy governing comprehensive cancer centers. Another ideal is to have cancer caregivers interacting with and in the same environment as researchers who are developing the advanced treatments and technologies. The importance and potential impact of this are often overlooked, so when you’re seeking a place for care, ask about the research component of your center.