Program for gynecologic oncology one of the few of its kind in the U.S.

January 23, 2007
Upon entering John Powell’s office, a visitor first notices a ceiling-high bookshelf. Sifting through the titles, it becomes clear that the Wilmington surgeon is not merely well-read.

Many of the selections are his own published writings –the byproduct of a leader in gynecologic cancer whose credits include hundreds of journal entries and dozens of book chapters.

Dr. Powell, a teaching professor at UNC Chapel Hill who practices with the Coastal Area Health Education Center, is one of two gynecologic oncology surgeons affiliated with New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Cancer Program. He and fellow Coastal AHEC professor Dr. Walter Gajewski perform more than 600 surgical cases annually, with more than 100 on an outpatient basis.

Add in the clinical research support of the Zimmer Cancer Center, and the support of gynecologists and oncologists in the private community, and the result is a gynecologic oncology surgery program that combines world-class gynecologic care and cutting-edge medical technology to combat diseases – mainly cancer – of the female reproductive system.

There are relatively few surgical programs like it in the United States, and fewer still in markets the size of Southeastern North Carolina. The quality of the program is one reason the Cancer Center has reached status as a Teaching Hospital Cancer Program, as designated by the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer.

“Cancer doesn’t automatically mean a death sentence anymore,” Dr. Powell said, describing the fearful moments and foregone conclusions many women face when learning they have cervical, ovarian or uterine cancer.

With an estimated 20,180 new cases of ovarian cancer in the United States last year, treatment options for most cancers have traditionally included surgery, chemotherapy and occasionally radiation therapy. However, in recent years, new, more effective methods of treating reproductive malignancies that hasten recovery have been employed, including laser surgery.

“You can get excellent results in care and have excellent cosmetic and functional results with laser surgery,” Dr. Powell said. “There are tremendous advantages.”

NHRMC’s unique ability to offer gynecologic oncology – one of only a handful of sites in the state – underscores the institution’s commitment to provide expert, close-to-home gynecologic health care to women in Southeastern North Carolina, he said.

“It’s my sense people are much happier to stay at home for treatment than to have to go three or four hours away,” he said.

Ovarian cancer survivor Patricia Finch began receiving treatment at the Zimmer center almost three years ago.

“Oh gosh yes, it’s a wonderful resource,” she said.

Finch’s battle with ovarian cancer started when she began having problems urinating. A CT scan revealed a tumor.

“When I first found out, it was a shock,” she said. “You’re frightened of the treatments and their effects.”

The 73-year-old underwent a hysterectomy to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy. She described ovarian cancer, which accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers among women and ranks second behind uterine cancer among gynecologic cancers, as especially sinister.

“It’s a hidden cancer,” she said. “You don’t know you have it because it won’t show up in a Pap smear. You have to have a blood test.”

The Zimmer Cancer Center – NHRMC’s outpatient cancer facility and Southeastern North Carolina’s only community cancer center - boasts facilities and equipment that include a modern chemotherapy suite and a linear accelerator that helps maximize tumor treatment.

“Our successes here at New Hanover Regional have been comparable to any at the various universities around the country,” Dr. Powell said.