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Serving rural Kansas from an urban center

October 30, 2018

By Tiffany Roney

Cancer center provides top treatments in underserved areas

A Kansas doctor has found his lifelong purpose serving rural patients who battle cancer.

Dr. Phu Truong, medical oncologist and hematologist for the Cancer Center of Kansas, appreciates that the center provides care, convenience and cost savings for people in underserved areas.

"There are multiple occasions where patients say things like, ‘Oh, thank God you're here so that I don't have to travel. My wife's not in good health, and I don't have a lot of support.' In rural America, you have the nicest people, but resources are limited," Truong said.

Phu Truong, M.D.
“Taking care of patients afflicted with cancer, making them feel better and extending their lives— that gives me personal satisfaction. That’s what keeps me going and drives me. I think I found my purpose in life.”

— Dr. Phu Truong

The center's model admits patients to the Wichita hospital for any serious problems and then, after being discharged, provides follow-up care in its satellite clinics.

"Instead of the patients having to drive many hours to Wichita from western or eastern Kansas, the Cancer Center of Kansas doctors go to them and deliver treatments in their hometowns," Truong said. "I thought that was a great concept, in terms of going above and beyond to provide for patients."

Traveling to cities is often difficult for people who are battling cancer. Some patients are older individuals who struggle with driving long distances; some younger patients suffer fatigue as a symptom of their diseases; others are parents who cannot take too much time away from their families. To meet them close to home is a treat for Truong.

"These people are so appreciative and kind," Truong said. "I always look forward to going to visit them because they're a pleasant group of people to take care of." 

Full-spectrum service

The center provides a spectrum of medical oncology and hematology, including chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, and other services that cancer patients need.

With headquarters in Wichita, the center has planted satellite clinics in underserved areas, such as Independence, Kansas, where the local hospital closed in 2015, and Neodesha, which has a critical access hospital that offers essential services but not cancer treatments.

Truong said he appreciates that the center supports local hospitals by providing ancillary services and working closely with local family doctors to take care of patients. Truong and his cancer center colleagues each have consistent days, two or four times per month, at each of their assigned satellite clinics.

"We each go to the same places, so it's continuity for the patients," Truong said. "It's a
partnership with the local providers; they are our right and left hand because they are there every day, while we come on specified days to provide expert care."

Latest and greatest

Through a partnership with the National Community Oncology Research Program and the National Cancer Institute, the center provides rural residents the opportunity to participate in clinical trials that include standard care and new treatments.

Truong said these types of trials are normally only delivered in academic centers in cities, but the Cancer Center of Kansas provides the trials at its satellite clinics.

These trials benefit patients with multiple types of cancers because all trial participants receive the current standard of care, and some participants also receive new treatments being tested. For example, in a clinical trial for breast cancer, some patients received the new treatment in addition to standard treatment, while others received standard treatment as part of their participation in the trial.

"Some of these patients are receiving the latest and greatest treatments, even in small-town Kansas," Truong said. "It's exciting to know that we're providing state-of-the-art clinical trials to rural America."



From ‘lab rat' to doctor



Truong became interested in oncology midway through his undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas, when he was majoring in cellular biology.

From immunology to virology, Truong enjoyed all his classes and foresaw a career in research. Everything changed when his father was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer.

"As I witnessed my father's suffering from his illness, I realized, ‘I don't want to be a lab rat; I want to be a doctor - a cancer doctor.'"

Truong connected with the center during his third year of medical school at KU School of Medicine-Wichita. He completed hematology and oncology rotations under Cancer Center of Kansas doctors Tom Schulz and Dennis Moore Jr., who served as his mentors.

"When I rotated through their service, I thought, ‘Wow, oncology is very fascinating. This is what I want to do,'" Truong said.

After interning at the clinic and before heading to his fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Truong received an important question from Dr. Shaker Dakhil at the Cancer Center of Kansas: "When you're done with your fellowship, would you like to come back? We have a job for you."

Truong's answer: an immediate "yes."

He signed with the Cancer Center of Kansas for the following reasons: the excellent and compassionate care they provide, proximity to family, and the group's diversity.

Locationally, he appreciates that the clinic was based in his hometown of Wichita. The location is important to Truong and his wife, who want to live near family. He and his wife are both from central Kansas.

Additionally, he values the group's diversity in terms of ethnicity, age, education, and experience. Ethnically, the group includes physicians from various parts of the world, including Truong, who is Vietnamese. Generationally, some of the physicians are nearing retirement, while others are "fresh out of fellowship," Truong said.

Educationally, the physicians hail from a variety of institutions, including MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, Yale University in Connecticut, Fred Hutchinson Research Center in Seattle, and others. Additionally, each brings something different to the table in terms of experience.

"I appreciate that I can call or text any of them to ask, ‘What would you do for this patient?' It's amazing what kinds of opinions they offer and treatments they suggest depending on their background, training and clinical experience," Truong said. "Experience counts."

Truong joined the center as a full-fledged physician in 2005.

"Our mission is to take care of patients afflicted with cancer and to try our best to make their lives better," Truong said. "That's the reward we are seeking - to improve the lives of patients afflicted with cancer in rural America."

Success stories abound at the Cancer Center of Kansas. Two that Dr. Phu Truong especially remembers took place in southeast Kansas.

One man had a job and children in Fort Scott, so it would have been difficult for him to travel to a city for treatment. The Cancer Center's satellite clinic near the man's home enabled him to receive treatment locally and eventually go into remission.

Unfortunately, the man's testicular cancer relapsed systematically a few years later. At that point, he needed a stem cell transplant.

Fortunately, the Cancer Center was able to keep him in the same system of physicians and bring him to Wichita for a double stem cell transplant. Now, six years out from the transplant, the man is healthy. As a bonus, his niece now works for the Cancer Center as a nurse.

Another patient, also from Fort Scott, was a 60-year-old hairdresser suffering from a rare form of cancer - metastatic goblet cell carcinoma of the appendix. The cancer had progressed into lymph nodal disease in her abdomen, pelvis and neck. The situation looked nearly hopeless, Truong said.

Because the woman was so ill and no treatments for her were available, Truong and his team accessed an immunotherapy drug on a compassionate use basis. Remarkably, though the medicine was not approved for her disease, the patient responded. Her cancer has significantly reduced, and they are continuing with the immunotherapy.

"It was crazy because she was basically on her way out a year and a half ago, and recently she was able to attend her youngest son's wedding," Truong said. "It was like a miracle."
Last modified: Aug 19, 2019
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