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Hope for Millions through Cancer Centers

NCI-Designated Cancer Centers provide breakthrough approaches to preventing, diagnosing, and treating all types of cancers. Today, there are 71 centers in 36 states that are composed of multidisciplinary teams that deliver cutting-edge research, clinical trials, and state-of-the-art treatment facilities to all Americans, including many underserved communities. Earning an NCI designation is an honor reserved for only the top cancer centers in the nation.

Image of Vivian Craig

Native American Vivian Craig credits the care she received at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center for her survival of both breast cancer and uterine cancer. 

Credit: National Cancer Institute

Vivian Craig was met with silence when she reached out to fellow Navajo women about what their breast cancer treatment was like. “A lot of Navajo women don’t speak for themselves,” she said, “so no one came forward.” But her strong desire to beat the illness led her to seek treatment anyway and to participate in a clinical trial offered at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The National Cancer Act of 1971 put world-class cancer care in centers like the one at UNM in communities across the country. Before the National Cancer Act, there would’ve been no place for Vivian to get the care that she needed. By the time Vivian was diagnosed in 2006, the five-year survival rate for Native American women was around 83%, thanks in part to access to treatments.

With her diagnosis, Vivian’s first thought was of her kids. “The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, but I was determined to beat this and be there for my family.” Treatment was difficult, but her family’s loving support kept her going. “They were always there. They took me in for every doctor’s visit and my daughter brought a [Navajo] healer to see me every time I came back.”

Today, Vivian is 67 years old. Without the cancer center, she might not have had the same access to the latest treatments. And with care from the UNM center, she beat cancer again—uterine, this time—in 2017. “I’m very thankful for my doctors at UNM,” she said, now two years cancer-free. She’s enjoying being the matriarch of her family and especially loves being a grandmother of 14. “Cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence,” she said. “I’m a testament to that.”

One Cancer Center Director’s Mission to Serve the Underserved

Dr. Cheryl Willman

Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, is a two-time cancer survivor herself. She is passionate about providing innovative and equitable care to all New Mexicans.

Credit: University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center

“[It’s] an ethical imperative,” said Dr. Cheryl Willman, speaking on the need to have access to world-class cancer care “in a person’s home state, surrounded by the people who love and support them.” And for 20 years as the University of New Mexico (UNM) Comprehensive Cancer Center’s director and CEO, bringing this care to all New Mexicans is exactly what she set out to do.

Persistence has paid off for this multiple award-winning, internationally recognized physician–scientist (herself a two-time cancer survivor). Among her many accomplishments, she worked with other top researchers in the country and discovered genetic mutations unique to Native American and Hispanic children, which lead to more precise cancer treatments for these groups. But she considers developing the UNM center and providing cancer care equitably across New Mexico as her life’s passion and work. Not an easy task in a sprawling state with large underserved populations and “many rural areas with limited medical infrastructure,” she said.

The UNM center exists because of the National Cancer Act of 1971. Before 1971, there were only eight cancer centers in the country receiving research support from NCI. Now, doctors and scientists work together in a network of 71 NCI-Designated Cancer Centers to ensure patients get the best care possible—“and if we don’t have an innovative treatment or approach, we know [another center that] does, and we get that patient and their family to that center,” said Dr. Willman.

The work continues, but “our science is really bearing fruit,” said Dr. Willman. And she intends to keep ensuring that “all New Mexicans have access to state-of-the-art cancer care and can benefit from advances in cancer research.”

NCI-Designated Cancer Centers Make a Difference

Factoid depicting that there were 15 cancer centers in 1971 and there are 71 cancer centers in 2021.

Thanks to the National Cancer Act of 1971, what started as a network of 15 cancer care centers has now grown to 71 NCI-designated centers in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

Credit: National Cancer Institute

It’s no coincidence that the top cancer hospitals in the United States are also NCI-Designated Cancer Centers. Centers must prove that they deliver state-of-the-art facilities, cutting-edge treatments, breakthrough research, and lifesaving clinical trials. No easy feat, indeed.

Before 1971 there was no national program to take on cancer. The historic signing of the National Cancer Act changed that. The mission was to foster excellence in cancer research across the entire spectrum of medical–scientific disciplines and then use these discoveries to help educate, prevent, diagnose, and treat all types of cancers. What started as a network of 15 cancer care centers has now grown to 71 NCI-designated centers in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

“Those cancer centers, as a group, perform research that increases our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer more effectively,” states Dr. Doug Lowy, principal deputy director of NCI. Every year, approximately 250,000 people receive their cancer diagnosis at an NCI center and even more receive treatment at one. But what makes these centers even more remarkable are the thousands of patients enrolled in lifesaving clinical trials that have originated within the network, all led by collaborative teams of scientists, researchers, and clinicians. That’s why the centers are also integral to advancing the goals of the Cancer Moonshot℠.

Cornelia Ulrich, executive director of the comprehensive cancer center at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) of Utah notes, “A key asset at HCI is that we partner with our patients to inform our cancer research strategy. More than 95% of HCI patients volunteer to participate in research, making a true difference for those affected by cancer in the future.”

Not surprisingly, studies show patients treated at NCI-Designated Cancer Centers have higher survival and recovery rates overall.

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