Dr. Edward S. Kim of City of Hope National Medical Center: “If you receive a cancer diagnosis, there is hope”

If you receive a cancer diagnosis, there is hope. Cancer survival is at an all-time high. There are millions of cancer survivors, and you probably know some of them. Yes, having cancer is challenging, but you can survive and thrive. Many of my patients tell me they have been inspired to start whole new careers […]

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If you receive a cancer diagnosis, there is hope. Cancer survival is at an all-time high. There are millions of cancer survivors, and you probably know some of them. Yes, having cancer is challenging, but you can survive and thrive. Many of my patients tell me they have been inspired to start whole new careers and vocations or reconnect with family members after experiencing cancer. There is hope for the future for you. Remaining positive is everything.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?

In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Edward S. Kim.

Edward S. Kim, M.D., M.B.A., Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, is Physician-in-Chief at City of Hope Orange County and the Vice Physician-in-Chief, City of Hope National Medical Center. A U.S. News & World Report “Top Doctor” and clinician world-renowned for his immense oncology experience, Dr. Kim leads City of Hope Orange County’s esteemed team of clinician-scientists with unique cancer expertise. He is responsible for driving innovation in cancer care and delivery for City of Hope Orange County’s network of advanced cancer care and a world-class cancer center opening in Irvine in 2022.

Dr. Kim is among the country’s foremost experts in molecular prognostication — which advances cancer detection and personalized therapies — for lung, head and neck cancers. He’s served as a principal/co-principal investigator on numerous studies and protocols and authored/co-authored more than 200 published articles, book chapters and reviews in top-tier journals. He’s held many leadership roles, such as tenured associate professor in the Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Kim recently completed his Master of Business Administration at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I didn’t grow up in a house full of doctors. My mother is an artist. My father was a finance professor. Neither pushed me toward medicine. However, my path was clear when my brother passed away from a rare disease at age 12. It was very sudden, but I knew right then and there that I would pursue medicine.

It wasn’t until my residency at Baylor College of Medicine that I encountered and met my first cancer patients. They had a perspective that was so deep and sensitive. I knew I wanted to work with this patient population because they truly see the world differently. Ever since, I’ve devoted my life to researching, studying, and treating cancer.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

When it comes to new therapies, we are in a time when we are reaching for the stars. There are so many incredible breakthroughs happening right now. I want to be part of the teams that cure cancer because we are so close to achieving it for several forms of the disease. This decade will see outstanding advances if we continue to provide the resources and intellectual fire that are needed.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

My role as physician-in-chief of City of Hope Orange County is both exciting and groundbreaking. We are building a cancer campus and network of care to deliver advanced and highly specialized services to where people live and work. Traditionally, many patients had to travel significant distances to be treated at the nation’s top cancer centers. Now, we are making clinical trials and breakthrough therapies more accessible, which means less stress for patients and families, ultimately supporting better outcomes.

I’ll also tell you about another important project that we’ll pursue at City of Hope. For cancer patients, participation in clinical trials is vital because they can access the latest treatments. I firmly believe that these trials need to be more representative of the cancer patient population. This not only helps patients, it assists us in collecting more relevant data. However, current practices tend to exclude people who are too sick, have underlying conditions, or cannot make multiple visits to the treatment center. I’m working toward lifting these exclusions and starting with the proposition that everyone with cancer should be eligible for a clinical trial.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?

While I’m currently involved in cancer center administration, my background is as a researcher and clinician. I’ve been involved in more than 200 seminal cancer studies. I was the principal investigator of the BATTLE (Biomarker-integrated Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination) personalized medicine trial. I’ve also done extensive research in molecular prognostication, which has influenced both cancer detection and the development of personalized therapies for lung, and head and neck cancers. Right now, I would add that I’m also a colleague of some of the brightest minds in cancer research and treatment. City of Hope is truly on the leading edge, and many of the breakthroughs will come from the teams that I’m privileged to work with today.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?

I could tell you cancer is a disease in which some of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body. That’s the basic clinical response. But I believe that Siddhartha Mukherjee’s description of cancer as “the emperor of all maladies” says it best. Cancer is complex. It has the power to take over our physical and emotional selves and the lives of our loved ones. Yet, like all emperors, cancer’s power is not absolute or everlasting.

What causes cancer?

Cancer is caused by changes or mutations to the DNA within cells. We’re still looking at why these changes happen. Some reasons are genetic, meaning you cannot do anything about it –it’s simply who you are. We do know that other reasons are behavioral or environmental, and we can minimize a person’s risk by managing these factors.

What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?

Cancer can be found in nearly every organ of the body, even blood. Some forms of cancer are much more prevalent, and we better understand how to treat these more effectively. Other forms are rare or considered difficult to treat. The cancers with the highest 5-year relative survival rates are melanoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, breast, prostate, testicular, cervical, and thyroid cancer. But we’re working to advance the prognosis for many other cancer forms. For example, our success with lung cancer has increased by leaps and bounds.

I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?

Sometimes, cancer can’t be prevented because there are certain genetic risk factors we cannot control. However, cancer is often due to lifestyle or behaviors that we can control. A few ways we can help prevent cancer include stopping smoking, avoiding places where there is secondhand smoke, being more active, eating more plant-based foods, limiting your alcohol intake, watching your weight, and protecting your skin from the sun. I would also advocate for getting your basic screenings for breast, colon, prostate, and skin cancer, which may not prevent the disease but will certainly increase your odds for a good outcome if cancer is detected early.

How can one detect the main forms of cancer?

There’s extensive ongoing research focusing on blood testing that can help detect many forms of cancer. It’s important to monitor any physical changes that you notice –sores that don’t heal, hard lumps, excessive coughing, etc. and see your doctor if these persist. Most importantly, get screened for common cancers such as breast, colon, prostate, and skin cancer. If you’re a smoker, there’s also a lung cancer screening test that is fast and convenient. For every cancer type, you want to detect it as early as possible because that is when it is most treatable.

Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?

It depends on the type of cancer we are treating and how early we detect it. Some cancers have as much as a 98 percent survival rate, others are more difficult to treat. However, more people are surviving cancer in the United States than ever before. There are an estimated 17 million cancer survivors in the United States, and that number is projected to increase to 22.2 million by 2030. Getting your cancer detected early is a big determinant of your outcome.

Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?

Cancer specialists are very excited about precision medicine. As we have said, each person is unique, and every cancer is different. We can now study how a specific gene change (gene mutation) might affect a person’s risk of getting a certain cancer. Or, if the patient already has cancer, we study how their genes (or genes in their cancer cells) might be influenced by targeted treatment.

Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?

First of all, you need to have a support system. It’s very difficult to experience a cancer diagnosis alone. I encourage my patients to ask for help. You’d be surprised how many people will step up. Also, consider joining a support group because it is important to express yourself among people who understand your journey. And, be good to yourself. Your body is going through a lot. Practice relaxation or meditation techniques and get adequate exercise. Finally, seek out friends and family who make you feel loved and appreciated. They will help you preserve a positive outlook.

From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?

Find out what the person you love needs. It may be as simple as a car ride or time spent talking. Everyone responds to cancer differently, and you need to understand what the individual wants you to do. Above all, have patience and assure the person that you care about them.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

There are so many myths swirling around the internet and on social media. My advice is that if you see something that sounds outrageous, ask a medical expert. No one ever received great cancer care by reading Social media posts from a non-clinician. Feel empowered to ask an expert like your doctor.

Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. If you receive a cancer diagnosis, get support. No one should go through cancer alone. Ask someone to help you. Even if you think they won’t help, many people will surprise you and offer support. Those patients who have a person –or people — they can count on do better and have a better outlook. I’ve seen it myself –ask for support from someone you know or your care team.
  2. If you receive a cancer diagnosis, get a second opinion. Diagnostic errors are far from uncommon. In fact, one recent study found that they affect about 1 in 20 patients in the U.S. each year. With cancer, those errors in diagnosis can have a profound impact. A missed or delayed diagnosis can make the disease that much harder to treat and impact your chances for a good outcome. Don’t be embarrassed or think you are doing something wrong by asking for a second opinion. It may save your life.
  3. If you receive a cancer diagnosis, ask about clinical trials. In many cases, clinical trials are an important part of your cancer treatment. By participating in a clinical trial you have access to some of the latest therapies for your particular type of cancer. Ask your doctor about clinical trials available to you. Many world-class cancer centers also post information about the current trials available to patients.
  4. If you receive a cancer diagnosis, seek specialized care. Cancer is too complex to be treated as just another disease in most community settings. You need to find a specialist who focuses only on your particular type of cancer. Or, if you’re in a location where that type of expertise isn’t available, ask your doctor to set up consultations with a specialist. A lot can be done with telehealth these days.
  5. If you receive a cancer diagnosis, there is hope. Cancer survival is at an all-time high. There are millions of cancer survivors, and you probably know some of them. Yes, having cancer is challenging, but you can survive and thrive. Many of my patients tell me they have been inspired to start whole new careers and vocations or reconnect with family members after experiencing cancer. There is hope for the future for you. Remaining positive is everything.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ll go back to my advocacy for opening up clinical trials to more of the cancer population. Most eligibility requirements are outdated and not based on clinical evidence pertaining to the study underway. Clinical trials need to reflect the real-world cancer population. This not only leads to better outcomes for the individual, it improves our research. We need to lift clinical trial exclusions and start with the proposition that everyone with cancer should be eligible for a clinical trial.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’d encourage them to follow me on Twitter @DrEdKim or follow @cityofhopeOC. We’re fulfilling a promise to deliver tomorrow’s cancer breakthroughs to those who need them today. That’s very good news for the local Orange County area and for the nation because we are developing a best practice.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.

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