Nothing unites people like a common enemy, and there’s no common enemy quite like cancer.
In July 2022, The University of Kansas Cancer Center achieved “Comprehensive” cancer center designation from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the highest level of recognition. Reaching comprehensive status has been years in the making and required the dedication and commitment of the entire KU Cancer Center team, community leaders and supporters throughout the region.
“Comprehensive designation is a crucial milestone in our journey to conquer all cancers,” said Roy Jensen, M.D., director of KU Cancer Center. “For people with cancer, Comprehensive designation means patients will be cared for by the world’s leading cancer experts who have access to a robust portfolio of clinical trials. It also means we now have increased access to more federal funding and research dollars, which helps us grow and retain our team of internationally renowned researchers and physician-scientists.”
Pillars of excellence
Comprehensive Cancer Centers are recognized for their leadership and resources; demonstrating an added depth and breadth of research; and substantial transdisciplinary research that bridges these scientific areas. Specifically, the four pillars of a comprehensive center are:
- Scientific depth and breadth
- Transdisciplinary research
- Community outreach and engagement
- Education and training
KU Cancer Center was able to make strides in these areas with the help of philanthropy, which provided the seed funds to do quality research that in turn secured grants. Jensen said it is difficult to get grant funding for projects in which data is lacking.
“Philanthropy plays a critical role in many cases by giving us the seed capital to get things started,” Jensen said. “With those funds, we can generate data to test hypotheses to such an extent that we can get a good sense whether an idea is going to work.”
And many of those ideas are working. In addition to comprehensive status, KU Cancer Center was awarded a five-year, $13.8 million grant to support the center’s research programs and shared equipment and resources. It also received an “outstanding” rating by NCI reviewers.
The prestigious comprehensive designation places KU Cancer Center among only 53 such centers in the United States. It puts it in the company of other well-known institutions such as Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
In recognition of KU Cancer Center’s designation, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly proclaimed September “Comprehensive Cancer Centers Awareness Month.”
“Thanks to the incredible leadership at the University of Kansas, we are saving thousands of lives and conquering cancer starting right here in Kansas,” Kelly said.
KU alumnus Drue Jennings, retired CEO of Kansas City Power & Light, longtime champion for KU Cancer Center and KU Endowment Life Trustee, said without generous support, the designation would have been elusive.
“KU Cancer Center has earned the trust of donors, and it has made all the difference,” Jennings said. “Some people who have never given before gave to this effort, and gifts ranged from single digits to eight digits. The troops truly rallied to fight for this cause.”
Jennings was instrumental in the creation of the Cancer Funding Partners, which focuses on fundraising and advocacy for KU Cancer Center. He served as chair from 2009 to 2012, and his participation has never wavered. Advocating for the cause, he said, has been the most rewarding experience in his long history of fundraising.
“The human impact, the economic development impact, the positive impact on other health care systems throughout the area — all contributed tremendously to collective well-being, making Kansas City a better place to live,” Jennings said.
Floriene Lieberman was another advocate involved in the early days of the Cancer Funding Partners. Lieberman, of Overland Park, Kan., was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976 and traveled to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for care because there was not an NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Kansas City region.
It was hard for Lieberman to be away from home and her family for the two rounds of treatment she needed a few years apart, but she felt it was important to have the best care available. “Because I chose to go to a comprehensive cancer center and participate in clinical trials, they were able to save my life,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman has been rallying friends and raising funds for KU Cancer Center for decades because she feels strongly about receiving care close to home. “When you are sick and hurting, you should not have to travel hundreds of miles to get the best treatment,” Lieberman said. “I wanted more than that for my community.”
Roy Jensen is like another son to Lieberman, so when he asked for funding help, it was an easy “yes.” She and her late husband started the Floriene and George Lieberman Family Professorship in 2008 to support the NCI designation effort. “We have advanced continuously in the cancer field,” Lieberman said. “I know we will continue to do more until we have a cure. Of course, the research must be funded.”
Community leader Bill Hall served as president of the Hall Family Foundation in Kansas City for 37 years, and the foundation was a major supporter of KU Cancer Center’s efforts to earn comprehensive designation. He sees the accomplishments so far as a case of all the right pieces of a puzzle coming together.
An integral piece of the puzzle was when Jensen came on board as director in 2004. Hall was impressed with Jensen’s vision and ability to articulate that vision in a straightforward way, and why it was important to Kansas City, the university and the medical center.
“The greatest influence on me when it came to Roy Jensen was his emotion and his passion for the patient,” Hall said. “When he talks about patients and the disease, it is personal to him. We had confidence that not only did he have the ability to make this happen, he had the passion for it.”
Building a home-court advantage
KU Cancer Center is a destination for treatment in the region: 7,158 new patients visited the center in 2022. But the ultimate goal — finding a cure for cancer — is still a work in progress.
One of the ways Jensen and the Cancer Funding Partners are working toward creating an even more effective institution is by consolidating it into one location. Currently, cancer center operations are scattered throughout several buildings and locations.
“When someone walking on the KU Medical Center campus asks for directions to KU Cancer Center, you kind of have to scratch your head because it’s nowhere and it’s everywhere,” Jensen said. “There is no one place you can point to and say, ‘That’s where the cancer center is’.”
Jensen, a sports fan, makes an analogy that resonates with KU fans everywhere: KU Cancer Center is looking to create its own home-court advantage. A central location would allow for the most cohesive work among researchers, clinicians, educators and physicians, and ultimately result in the best possible outcomes for patients.
In his analogy, Jensen highlights the 1952 KU men’s basketball team. They won the NCAA championship, and their home court was Hoch Auditorium, a less-than-optimal facility.
“They accomplished something great despite that situation,” Jensen said. “And we were able to get comprehensive designation despite our circumstances.”
In 1955, KU built Allen Fieldhouse, an iconic home court that launched the program into a new tier of excellence.
“We want to build our own Allen Fieldhouse,” Jensen said. “It moves our program from one that is capable of accomplishing great things to being one of the best cancer centers in the country, unequivocally. That is our goal.”
Jennings and other advocates know the race to cure cancer has not reached the finish line. The comprehensive designation was more of a beginning than an end, and fundraising continues as the center forges ahead with its mission to end the disease.
“The growing needs of our center suggest continuing development of resources, from diverse sources, not the least of which will be the philanthropy of those who believe we can make a difference,” Jennings said.
Jensen expressed his gratitude for the generosity that got him and his team where they are today.
“We are incredibly grateful for all the support we have received over the years, and we would be nowhere without it,” he said. “I just want to say how thankful I am on behalf of everyone at KU Cancer Center for what all of those incredible folks have done for us.”