Commonwealth Cancer Center brings cutting-edge treatment to Kentucky's small towns

November 09, 2003|JOHN T. DAVIS

Janice and David Cocanougher recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a trip to Alaska.

It's not a trip they thought they would be making 2 1/2 years ago when David learned that after what appeared to be successful treatment at the University of Kentucky Medical Center for cancer in his sinus, mouth and eye, the disease had spread to his lungs.

Although the Cocanoughers credit doctors at UK with saving David's life by fighting the initial cancer with extensive surgery and radiation therapy, they weren't encouraged by what they were being told about the lung cancer.

It was Janice's impression that the message to David was "for you to go home and be as comfortable as you can and let the cancer have its way. In other words, go home and die."


"We left UK with no hope and no doctor," David said.

That's when the Cocanoughers turned to Dr. Thomas Baeker at the Commonwealth Cancer Center in Danville.

"Dr. Baeker agree to see David, and he agreed to treat David," Janice said. "He said there's always hope ... there's always something out there to try."

"He gave me my hope back," David said.

That was June 11, 2001, and while David, 62, has been through a lot, he's still up and around enjoying his family, including his granddaughter, and still enjoying his passion for UK basketball.

The Cocanoughers are one of many families in the smaller towns in this part of Kentucky who have been able to get cancer treatment close to home that once was only available in large cities, such as Lexington and Louisville. For the past eight years, cancer patients in Danville, Corbin, Somerset, London, Frankfort and most recently Russell Springs have benefited from the foresight of Baeker and his partners in Commonwealth Cancer Center.

Baeker was practicing in Louisville a decade ago when it became clear to him and his partners that small and medium-sized communities were not getting full-time cancer care - that there was a large population of rural patients who had to travel to the cities for treatment.

At the time, a Lexington physician was coming to Danville one day a week to see patients, but the patients had to go to Lexington for treatment. When Baeker and his partners opened their first offices in Danville and Frankfort, there was such a demand for their services that they brought in a new partner and began looking at other communities where only "transient care" by big-city oncologists was available. They soon expanded to Corbin and Somerset.

"We expanded the practice to provide full-time, 24-hour, day-to-day cancer care," Baeker said.

He said he never would have been able to go to other communities had it not been for the addition of a fifth partner, Dr. Yinong Liu, who has been a big help in treating patients in the Danville clinic, and has freed up Baeker to travel to other communities.

A native of mainland China who had just finished his training at the National Institutes for Health, Liu has assimilated into the community, is very knowledgable and has been a "wonderful addition" to the practice, Baeker said. A third physician assisting in Danville is Dr. Aruna Arekapudi, who sees patients at the clinic twice a week for half days.

Recently, Baeker began seeing patients in Russell Springs one day a week and hopes to be able to provide a "mobile clinic" there where staff from the Danville office would provide chemotherapy treatment at the hospital in Russell Springs.

Chemotherapy used to require long drives for many

A decade ago, nearly all chemotherapy treatment was provided in large, big-city hospitals, but the spread of high-tech diagnostic equipment, such as PET scans and MRIs, to smaller facilities such as Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center has made those long drives to the doctor unnecessary.

"Most, if not all, cancer care can be delivered in smaller communities," Baeker said.

The "full range of cancer care" is now available in Danville, Baeker said, with the exception of neurosurgery and thoracic surgery, and Commonwealth Cancer Center is even undertaking the kind of clinical trials and cutting-edge treatments that were once available only in large cities.

Baeker said patients benefit from being treated in smaller clinics.

"If you go to a place like Lexington, you can become engulfed by a larger institution. You become less and less an individual ... We focus on personal, one-on-one care. We have the greatest collection of nurses ..."

To say nothing of avoiding the hassle of driving 30 miles or a hundred miles to a treatment center in a large city.

"It's a miserable thing to travel when you're sick with cancer," Baeker said. "It's much better to be taken care of close to home."

Not having to drive to Lexington for treatment was important to Boyle County resident Betty Followell, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999.

"My husband was still working at the time. I would have had to have someone take me to Lexington."

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