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How a comprehensive cancer center benefits you – even if you’re never a patient there

UT Southwestern Medical Center Simmons Cancer Center, Exterior building
UT Southwestern Medical Center Simmons Cancer Center, Exterior building

The Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center is one of 52-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the U.S. Dr. John Sweetenham, Associate Director for Clinical Affairs at the Simmons Center and chair of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network board, explains to KERA's Sam Baker how the centers go well beyond cancer treatment research into the community.


About comprehensive cancer centers

The National Cancer Institute of the United States designates comprehensive cancer centers based on:

  • The clinical care of folks with cancer.
  • Cancer research.
  • Educating the next generation of folks who are going to look after cancer patients and conduct cancer research.
  • And the fourth component, which has gained more importance in recent years, is efforts toward community outreach, equity, and diversity. 

Where does a comprehensive cancer center fit in the diagnosis-treatment chain?  

Well, it could easily come in before the diagnosis was made, because one of the areas where we may expend a lot of our efforts is in cancer prevention and early detection efforts towards improving healthy behaviors that reduce the risk of cancer.

Producing various screening activities that take place are all within the cancer center domain from before diagnosis to the survivorship phase, when patients are in the phase of returning to health and wellness afterward.

Are regions with such a center better off than those without?

Better off in terms of access to certain services? I would say yes, that's true. And particularly with respect to access to clinical trials of new treatments and new techniques.

Those folks who have access to an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center have many of those new treatments available to them and often before they're available in other parts of the country. 

Working to erase health disparities in marginalized communities.

Very often in many communities, the patients that are placed on clinical trials aren't representative of the population at the cancer center or the community as a whole. We've made a number of efforts where our recruitment of patients to clinical trials is very close to the overall kind of ethnic and racial mix of our community.

And furthermore, through efforts particularly designed at extending our services into new geographic locations, we believe that that's another way that we can deliver treatments to patients in their own backyard, particularly in clinical trials.

In that way, we give them better access to these new treatments that become available first through a clinical trial. 

Does the work at a comprehensive cancer center impact the care you receive elsewhere?

Yes. The work that we do in cancer centers across the country very often establishes new standards of care for the treatment of cancer or for the investigation of cancer or even for screening.

So, the impacts of a center such as Simmons Cancer Center go well beyond our immediate community and can affect people in many parts of the country and indeed in many parts of the world. 

However, all this available care can't help you if you don't screen for cancer to begin with. Are those who were skipping screenings at the beginning of the pandemic starting to come back? 

We are anticipating that we're going to see people over the next few years who present with cancers at a later stage than we have been accustomed to in recent years.

Having said that, certainly at Simmons Cancer Center, we've seen a definite a kind of uptick in the number of people who are now returning for their regular cancer screenings. And in some cases, but not all, that's back to pre-pandemic levels.

But obviously, you know, we want to encourage anyone who has been putting off a screening or putting off getting a concerning symptom worked up. We want to strongly encourage them to come back and see us now because we're providing a safe environment. And it's really important to get those screenings back on track. 


NCI-Designated Cancer Centers

Sweetenham Chairs NCCN Board

Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.