Kentucky leads the nation in cancer deaths. This UK doctor pledges to change that.

Kentucky has highest rate of cancer deaths. Markey Cancer Center wants to change that.

Mark Evers, director of the Markey Cancer Center, speaks about outreach and education on cancer awareness.
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Mark Evers, director of the Markey Cancer Center, speaks about outreach and education on cancer awareness.

For more than a decade, Kentucky has led the nation in the rate of people who get cancer and the rate of people who die from it.

That’s 26,000 Kentuckians who are diagnosed with cancer and 12,000 to 14,000 who die from it. Every year.

The statistics are chilling, but Mark Evers, director of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, has pledged to halve those rates in the next 10 years

“It’s an audacious goal,” Evers admits, “but you’ve got to have audacious goals” when it comes to cancer.

Part of that audacity comes from UK’s announcement that Markey has won its second designation as a National Cancer Institute cancer center, one of just 70 in the country. That designation has opened a pipeline for funding, research, screening and education in fighting cancer since UK first earned it in 2013.

Markey has expanded its research as NCI research funding jumping 24 percent in the past five years. But Evers is even more excited about the prevention and screening efforts underway that will hopefully help stop the largely preventable and sometimes easily treatable cancers that plague Eastern Kentucky in particular, such as lung, colorectal and cervical cancers.

Through the National Cancer Institute, for example, UK received $2 million in additional funding for HPV vaccines and other efforts to prevent the virus that leads to cervical cancer.

Markey’s cancer care and research is also expanding through the state with The Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network, which has grown from 8 hospitals to 20 since 2013. That means rural hospitals around the state — from Henderson to South Williamson — are trained in Markey protocols so that even if patients are referred to Markey, they can get care and treatment at their local hospitals.

“The big thing is we want patients to be treated close to home,” Evers said.

In addition, the Markey Cancer Center Research Network was created to improve access to clinical trials for patients from around the state. Right now, Markey trials are being run at hospitals in Ashland, Owensboro, Morehead, Elizabethtown and Huntington, W.Va.

Evers is particularly excited about the Career Training in Oncology Program, which focuses on preparing UK undergraduates from Appalachia to get into careers that will improve cancer rates in the region. Since it started in 2016, seven students have been accepted into UK’s College of Medicine.

“Part of this vision is to get our own people trained, people who will go back to Appalachia,” Evers said.

Then there’s the work going on in Lexington. In 2016, Markey started a Molecular Tumor Board, which uses complex genetic analysis to decide on the best cancer therapies for each patient. And earlier this year, Markey opened a new Precision Medicine Clinic, which is focused on early-phase clinical trials.

Jack Hillard has survived colon cancer and is still living with a rare form of leukemia, a life he credits to Markey’s care.

“This designation recognizes that Markey is right up there at the top, and we’re grateful to have that in Kentucky,” said Hillard, who is now the executive director of the Kentucky Cancer Foundation. “There’s a level of confidence, and to me, it’s the marriage of medicine and technology. I think it’s this just allows Markey a way to really advance into the future more than they would have otherwise.”

Markey received $42 million in research funding last year; $14.5 million is directly from the NCI designation, Evers estimates, plus what he calls “the halo effect,” things like the creation of the new Center for Cancer and Metabolism.

In the past five years, Kentucky’s colon cancer rate has gone from first in the country to fifth, and lung cancer rates appear to be going down.

But a new report from the American Cancer Society said Kentucky meets few benchmarks in the policy fight against cancer, with bad scores for a lack of smoke-free laws and a still low cigarette tax, despite a 50-cent-per-pack increase this year. In addition, Kentucky got dinged because earlier this year, the legislature cut all state funding for breast and cervical cancer screening, leaving it only to hospitals like UK and the University of Louisville.

There’s still a long way to go, but Evers says he’s optimistic.

“If we can move the needle so we’re no longer number one, that would be huge for Kentucky,” Evers said. “That would be a sea change for Kentucky. It’s all about changing the culture.”