News from Illinois CancerCare

Illinois CancerCare—A Truly Comprehensive Cancer Center

According to projections by the American Cancer Society, more than twelve million new cases of cancer would be diagnosed across the globe last year. Nearly one and a half million of those cases would be in the United States, and over sixty-two thousand right here in Illinois. Globally, nationally, or locally, those cases may seem like nothing more than statistics, unless you or one of your loved ones is the one in three affected by cancer in your lifetime.

The physicians and staff at Illinois CancerCare pay close attention to the statistics—they are deeply involved in cancer research—but never to the exclusion of seeing their “cases” as human beings. Amidst all those numbers representing newly diagnosed cancers, they see hope.

“Research is hope,” says Kollet Walty, Illinois CancerCare’s Director of Marketing. She points out that this center serving central Illinois is recognized as one of the top in the nation for its cancer care and received a 2007 Clinical Trials Participation Award—one of only ten awarded annually—from the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Our patients are getting the best and latest from a national award-winning research facility. Our goal is to be the best at what we do, which is balancing compassion and care with science and research to provide safe, effective treatment.”

Founded in 1977 as Oncology Hematology Associates, the center has recently undergone a name change to clarify its role in providing comprehensive care for people with cancer or blood disorders. “People may not know what ‘oncology’ and ‘hematology’ mean, but our new name and logo clearly express what we offer patients in central Illinois,” says Walty.

Illinois CancerCare comprises twelve clinic locations in the region. Most of its thirteen physicians hold double or triple board specialty certifications, in internal medicine, medical oncology, hematology, and infectious disease. They are based in Peoria and regularly travel to the other clinic sites to treat patients in their hometowns. Individual doctors always practice at the same clinics, ensuring continuity of care for patients.

Walty emphasizes that a diagnosis of cancer affects the whole person—it’s not just about a tumor. “It’s very emotional. For the patient and family to get through treatment and care, the needs of the patient as a whole must be considered.”

Operating as a one-stop shop for care, Illinois CancerCare in Peoria is located at the Peoria Cancer Center, which offers a full array of standard treatments, radiation oncology services, diagnostic scans and X-rays, labs, a retail pharmacy, and a café. It houses a Cancer Center for Healthy Living satellite office, which provides such essential patient support services as nutritional counseling, psychosocial support, yoga, massage, and patient support groups. The American Cancer Society has a patient navigator on sight to help with patient needs as well.

In addition to an employed staff of over two hundred, there are about forty dedicated volunteers—many cancer survivors or family members—spend time with patients while they receive treatment. They pass out treats, blankets, teddy bears, and other comforts.

Delivering World-Class Care to Your Hometown
Illinois CancerCare offers the latest PET/CT scanner for diagnostic testing. One of only seven in the world, and the only one in a U.S. private oncology clinic, this scanner is used to help doctors detect cancer in its early stages and also helps monitor treatment progress to determine effectiveness. It combines static images of the patient’s anatomy through computed tomography (CT), and dynamic images of the patient’s metabolic activity through positron emission tomography (PET). Kollet Walty explains that the PET image overlays the CT image, much in the way that a “moving” weather system overlays a map seen on a weather report.

This technology boasts many advantages over using separate scans. The patient endures only one scan rather than several. Physicians can more easily compare the images and determine patient response to treatment without waiting till the treatment regimen has been completed. The image’s clarity can lead to a more definitive diagnosis, helping to avoid more invasive procedures, such as biopsies. But it can also dictate whether it is necessary to do a biopsy if abnormal results are found.

State-of-the-art technology, the latest therapies, and clinical trials underscore the commitment by Illinois CancerCare physicians to offer patients in central Illinois world-class care for cancer and blood disorders. They want patients in Canton or Princeton, for example, to be able to stay home with their families and get the same level of care as if they were going to Mayo Clinic.

To achieve this goal, doctors here helped found a national organization called Cancer Clinics of Excellence™ (CCE) last May. April Hammer, the Chief Clinical Officer at Illinois CancerCare, also serves on CCE’s Board of Managers. According to Hammer, community-based oncologists like those at Illinois CancerCare (as opposed to medical school-based oncologists), provide the majority of cancer care in the United States. Using established guidelines developed by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American Society of Clinical Oncology as a foundation, CCE creates “evidence-based treatment protocols” (ETPs). Using ETPs ensures that a patient in Illinois receives the same treatment—based on clinical evidence of its effectiveness—as a patient in California or North Carolina.

CCE’s goal is to “bring together like-minded practices and expand on NCCN and ASCO guidelines to make them relevant to community-based oncology,” Hammer explains. “ETPs are the backbone. Average patients—those patients we treat here every day—and clinical trials together shape ETPs. They give oncology practices a template to work from to ensure future quality care in diagnosis, treatment, follow-up care, survivorship issues, and palliative and hospice care.” Currently, twenty-one practices across the United States—more than four hundred physicians—have become members of CCE.

Clinical Trials
Clinical research is an important part of the Illinois CancerCare practice and involves studies designed to evaluate possible new treatment options. Clinical trials test the safety and effectiveness of new or modified cancer drugs, new drug doses, new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy, different combinations of treatments, and symptoms and side effects of treatment.

Illinois CancerCare’s primary research affiliation is with the Mayo Clinic and its North Central Cancer Treatment Group (NCCTG). Participation in clinical trials to this level means that the Illinois CancerCare physicians are able to bring the most current cancer research to the residents of central Illinois.

Heather Burks, a Certified Clinical Research Professional, serves as Illinois CancerCare’s Clinical Research Coordinator, managing a staff of 19 researchers. She says that, since 1984, the center has been a member of the National Cancer Institute’s Community Clinical Oncology Program (CCOP). This federally funded program helps cover part of the necessary infrastructure costs that are required of a quality clinical research program. Burks explains that NCI has never denied funding to Illinois CancerCare, despite stiff competition with top-notch researchers around the country.

Dr. Sachdev Thomas, triple-certified in internal medicine, hematology, and medical oncology, says, “We have competed successfully for NCI research grants and have been funded continuously for twenty-eight years without a break by NCI—that’s a record. And all those federal dollars have gone into this community.”

More recently, Congress has cut funding for these grants by ten percent per year. At the same time, costs to conduct clinical trials continue to rise. According to Burks, “Typically, small cancer centers are cutting out their research. But our doctors want to add patients to clinical trials, so they have funded the shortfall themselves. They are very committed to being able to provide research to patients.”

In addition, the physicians created the Peoria Cancer Center Foundation in 2002 as a fundraising arm. Initially, the Foundation passed donations to other cancer foundations, such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Now, however, funds will also be used to help offset some of the underfunding;  looking to add more patients into clinical trials here in central Illinois,  as well as education and awareness efforts that will help with prevention and early detection.
Illinois CancerCare participates in broad categories of clinical trials for treatment, symptom management, and cancer prevention. All trials are typically divided into three phases. For example, Phase I drug treatment trials (which are not conducted here) determine a maximum tolerated dose for humans. Participants are usually people with advanced cancer who have exhausted all treatment options and are involved to help others.

Phase II trials—also called the activity phase—ask the question, “Does the drug really do something?” In these trials, the drug is used for the first time against a specific tumor type. Five, ten, or twenty institutions might be involved.

Phase III trials compare a standard treatment to a new treatment that has come through a Phase II trial. Half the participants are given the older, standard treatment and half the new treatment that is being tested. In Phase III, many institutions throughout the country participate.

Dr. Thomas says that Illinois CancerCare conducts about fifty percent Phase II and fifty percent Phase III trials. “In some trials, we have been the leading institution.” He has been the principal investigator for several trials and a co-investigator for many.

“Fifty percent of the clinical trials in central Illinois are done here,” he explains. The results of around one thousand studies have been published in medical journals in the last several years. Burks says, “It’s important to realize that some of the standard cancer treatments used nationwide have come out of trials that we—and our patients—have participated in.”

Personal Cancer Care
Sam Polito is a cancer survivor. In 1991, in his early twenties, he was diagnosed with stage II Hodgkin’s disease, a malignant lymphoma. He considers himself extremely fortunate to have been in the care of Illinois CancerCare’s Dr. John Kugler from the beginning. Polito spent about eight months in treatment: six cycles of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation. His daughter Alexa was about a year old then. He knows that the staff’s willingness to let Alexa be with her dad during chemotherapy helped him through the ordeal. “She was my inspiration,” he says. “She made me determined to beat the cancer, and the staff went the extra mile to make sure I was as positive as I could be.”

Polito, his wife Stephanie, and Alexa moved to Maine a couple of years later. He was diagnosed with cancer again in 1997 by a Boston oncologist. Polito called Dr. Kugler “for reassurance” and was told that his Boston doctor had “written the book on Hodgkin’s disease.” In spite of that expertise, the Politos returned to Peoria for the support system of family and friends but also for the “level of comfort” he felt at Illinois CancerCare. He completed his treatment right here in Peoria.

Since then, Polito has been doing well. His annual check-ups take place in one day—Dr. Kugler reviews his labs and chest X-ray results within an hour and then gives him a physical—and he’s done for the year.

Polito can’t say enough about the quality of care he continues to receive at Illinois CancerCare. “They have everything there in one place, and they do so much for people. It’s a comfortable place that doesn’t feel like a medical facility.” He finds the landscape views—water, prairie grasses, cattails—beautiful and calming. But it’s most rewarding to see the delighted expressions on the faces of staff members who haven’t seen him, his wife—or daughter Alexa—for years.

Illinois CancerCare, P.C., is located at 8940 N. Wood Sage Road in Peoria (off Route 91). The phone number is 309-243-3000 or toll-free at 866-662-6564. Their Web site is For information or questions about the Peoria Cancer Center Foundation call 309.243.3422 or visit

by Becky Rundall