Department of Surgery Chair Peter T. Scardino reflects on the expanding role of surgery at an institution devoted to caring for people with cancer.
Can you talk in broad terms about the role of surgery in the treatment of cancer today?
Cancer care in the second decade of the 21st century is still largely about the surgical treatment of the disease. The vast majority of people with cancer have surgery as their main or only treatment. It remains the most effective treatment, it is growing in its applications, and it’s getting better all the time.
How many operations does Memorial Sloan Kettering perform annually?
We do more than 20,000 every year. Each of our surgeons specializes in a particular type of cancer, and they are as experienced as anyone in the world at the types of procedures they do.
How many Memorial Sloan Kettering patients have surgery as part of their treatment?
We did a study several years ago in which we looked at more than 20,000 Memorial Sloan Kettering patients who came for treatment here and were followed for seven years. Nearly 50 percent of them had surgery as their only treatment and more than 70 percent had surgery as part of their treatment, along with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both.
Where is the surgical treatment of cancer headed?
The role of surgery is changing and expanding. We are making real progress in understanding cancer genetically and developing remarkable new targeted drugs that are highly effective against cancer — initially. But almost all solid tumors — lung, breast, colon — come back. So these drugs by themselves are not leading to permanent cures. As the multidisciplinary treatment of cancer grows more complex, surgery is also getting more challenging. Cancer surgeons are doing increasingly complicated and difficult operations, because we know that in many cancers the right combination of drug treatment and surgery gives much better results than either alone.
So this is where the role of a place like Memorial Sloan Kettering becomes so important.
Exactly. A surgeon from another institution said to me, “Memorial is the hospital where we send patients when we feel the operation can’t be done anywhere else.” We have nearly 100 highly experienced, very sophisticated surgeons, all of them leaders in their fields, who are constantly exploring how to make surgery safer and more effective, how to do operations for patients with advanced cancers — in other words, cancers that have spread — and when to use surgery in combination with the appropriate drugs or other therapies.
So an exclusive focus on cancer is extremely important when you talk about surgery.
Yes. Because our surgeons deal only with cancer and are specially trained in oncology — not just in their surgical specialty — they have a deep knowledge of the disease. They understand the natural history of cancer, the different ways it manifests itself, and how to care for patients in a multidisciplinary setting. What you get at Memorial Sloan Kettering is not only a great surgeon and a great operation, but a surgeon who understands when and how to incorporate surgery into the total treatment plan of each patient.
Which brings us to the collaborative approach to care.
At Memorial, when you meet with a surgeon you’re meeting with a team. The team includes world-class pathologists, radiologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists, all of whom collaborate to develop a treatment approach that will be most effective for each patient. Let me put it another way: Just because I’m a surgeon doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to say, “You need surgery.” There’s that old expression, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” At Memorial Sloan Kettering, surgeons have a lot more than a hammer. They have the full repertoire of cancer experts, all of whom are leaders in their fields. It doesn’t matter whether you treat the patient or I do — we work together and use whatever therapies are necessary to achieve optimal outcomes for our patients.
Let’s talk now about surgery in several specific cancers and start with your specialty, prostate cancer.
Again, we’re talking about a team that’s much broader than surgery. We partner with our colleagues in medical oncology, radiation oncology, pathology, and radiology — all of whom have a singular focus on prostate cancer — to arrive at a complete picture of each individual’s disease and decide how best to treat it.
Why should a patient come to a member of your prostate cancer surgical team?
Each of us is expert in the type of surgery we do, whether open, laparoscopic, or robotic radical prostatectomy. We perform 800 to 900 prostate surgical procedures a year. Roughly half are open and half are robotic. But the skill and experience of the surgeon makes the difference, not what tools are used — not only in the chances for a cure, but whether a man will suffer the side effects of surgery, which can include urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction. I should also note that not every man will require treatment, and we are skilled in evaluating each prostate cancer to determine which treatment, if any, a patient needs. Certain men do well with “active surveillance,” in which treatment is deferred because their cancer is unlikely to progress or become life threatening. Of course, we monitor these men carefully for any changes in the tumor’s characteristics that would make it wise to intervene with surgery or radiation.
Can you talk about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s surgical breast service?
Once again, the approach is collaborative. When you see a breast surgeon here, you’re not just seeing a surgeon expert at removing a lump, or even removing a breast if that proves necessary. You gain access to a highly sophisticated team — including breast cancer pathologists, radiologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists — who apply the most-modern diagnostic tools to understanding your cancer and developing the most effective treatment plan possible. Our surgeons have the world’s largest experience in axillary lymph node dissection. And we have a group of gifted plastic and reconstructive surgeons able to perform extremely complex breast reconstructions, if these are required.
And what can you say about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s program in thoracic surgery?
Our thoracic surgeons deal exclusively with cancer, whether primary lung cancer, esophageal cancer, mesothelioma, or cancers that have metastasized to the lung. They’re pioneers in treating these complicated diseases, which often entail high-risk operations. They work with our medical oncologists and radiation oncologists to develop chemo-radiation treatments that can shrink tumors to make surgery possible and, sometimes, to allow a patient to avoid surgery altogether. They’ve pioneered ways of reconstructing the esophagus when it has to be removed, and we’re a leading center in the use of laparoscopic and robotic surgery in lung cancer as well as pioneers in robotic surgery for esophageal cancer. These surgeons are actively developing new devices to make operations safer and more effective. And they’re involved in developing the world’s first immunotherapy program for mesothelioma and adenocarcinoma of the lung, in collaboration with scientists in our Center for Cell Engineering.
Finally, what drew you to Memorial Sloan Kettering?
I came here 14 years ago because I wanted to work with the finest cancer experts in the world. I’m a surgeon. I can only do so much by myself. At Memorial Sloan Kettering I have extraordinary colleagues completely committed to understanding and eventually curing cancer. This is the place to be if you want to be among the very best.