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4/24/17: Cancer Center reaches a milestone and evolves

Twenty years after Emerson established a cancer center, the program continues to evolve. During an era characterized by increasingly precise treatment, including new approaches to radiation oncology and the arrival of targeted therapies and immunotherapy, the Mass General Cancer Center at Emerson Hospital – Bethke has grown in size and sophistication.

Medical oncology staffJames Weitzman, MD, who has been on staff at Emerson for three years, now serves as medical director. “We will adhere to the same model that has worked well — general oncologists along with subspecialty experts from Mass General,” says Dr. Weitzman, a general oncologist whose clinical interests include lymphoma and leukemia.

Susan Sajer, MD, who joined Emerson as its first oncologist in 1994, continues to specialize in breast cancer, and Ewa Niemierko, MD, continues to specialize in lung cancer. Elizabeth Bigger, MD, a general oncologist who has worked within Partners HealthCare, is now on-site at Emerson full-time. Janet Murphy, MD, who specializes in gastrointestinal cancer, spends one day a week at Emerson.

“Mass General is completely committed to cancer care at Emerson,” notes Dr. Weitzman, who resides in Concord. “We currently have a full complement of medical oncologists and advanced practice clinicians. The new infusion center reflects an even stronger Mass General-Emerson connection now that the new, expanded Naka Infusion Center integrates all infusion care at Emerson.”

From radiation oncology to a full-service cancer center

Mass General was there at the beginning, notes John McGrath, MD, medical director of radiation oncology. “When Arthur and Virginia Bethke made the generous gift that established the cancer center in 1997, Mass General staff oversaw the radiation oncology service, which Dr. Schoenthaler was asked to direct,” he explains, in reference to Robin Schoenthaler, MD. Dr. McGrath joined the cancer center in 2000, and he and Dr. Schoenthaler continue today as Emerson’s two radiation oncologists.

Today’s technology has evolved significantly from that used 20 years ago. “Since then, we’ve seen the arrival of intensity-modulated radiation therapy or IMRT, and we began using CT scans to assist in treatment planning,” notes Dr. McGrath. “In 2011, we installed a state-of-the-art linear accelerator, which Mass General purchased, and for which Emerson provided infrastructure funds for the construction thanks to philanthropy.”

Radiation oncology continues to be shaped and perfected by technology that was unimaginable not long ago. Emerson cancer patients who receive radiation benefit from surface guidance technology, such as cardiac sparing for left breast cancer and tracking of respiratory motion.

The collaboration that assures Emerson has the most current radiation oncology technology is matched by the collegiality among the staff. “Members of the Mass General Cancer Center attend our multidisciplinary tumor board, and we attend their weekly tumor boards at Mass General,” says Dr. McGrath.

The relationship between Mass General and Emerson deepened in 2012, when all of Emerson’s cancer services were brought under one umbrella and given a new name: Mass General Cancer Center at Emerson Hospital – Bethke. With it came additional resources, including enhancements in social work, pain management and nutrition support, as well as prompt consultative support.

The best care: in Concord or Boston

As is true in so much of health care, the collaboration of Mass General and Emerson to provide cancer services is about access. “Being at Emerson helps fulfill our mission to assure that everyone in the community has access to the best cancer care,” says Dr. Weitzman. “It might be from the terrific physicians in Concord, but if someone needs more complex care, and perhaps access to a clinical trial, we want their transition to Boston for that care to go smoothly.”

Pictured: The medical oncology staff include (left to right) Susan Sajer, MD, Janet Murphy, MD, James Weitzman, MD, medical director, and Ewa Niemierko, MD.