Decades in oncology bring focus to the field

“When I was in the Army, we had young men dying of testicular cancer,” DiBella said as he took a moment to wipe tears from his eyes and compose himself. “Now we expect to cure every one of them. The explosion in the science has been amazing… When I started we were using chemotherapy drugs, and you’d just blast away and hope the patient could survive and the tumor would die. It was not predictable.”

AURORA | Dr. Nicholas DiBella has seen the evolution of cancer treatment first hand and been a part of important breakthroughs in oncology.

He helped found Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers 25 years ago. That has transformed into US Oncology, which treats more than 850,000 patients across the United States annually. He’s been a part of scores of clinical trials that have helped get to market drugs that have transformed how doctors treat cancer and extend lives of patients. He’s been recognized by his peers for his importance to the field of oncology.

But ask DiBella about his 45 years in the field, about the medical breakthroughs that have completely revolutionized the treatment of cancer, about how the field has changed, and he’s overtaken by emotion thinking of the patients over his long career who didn’t get to benefit from the advancements today.

“When I was in the Army, we had young men dying of testicular cancer,” DiBella said as he took a moment to wipe tears from his eyes and compose himself. “Now we expect to cure every one of them. The explosion in the science has been amazing… When I started we were using chemotherapy drugs, and you’d just blast away and hope the patient could survive and the tumor would die. It was not predictable.”

DiBella’s connection with his patients, their successes and struggles is apparent the moment he starts to discuss his career. And it’s apparent for his patients who have worked with DiBella.

Kent Hutcheson has been a patient, and a friend of DiBella’s, since he started treatment with him over a decade ago. Hutcheson, who founded the non-profit organization Colorado UpLift, said it’s not just DiBella’s medical expertise that makes him such a good doctor. It’s the compassion he brings into treatment.

“I’ve been battling (cancer) for practically 10 years, and he’s kept me alive. And so in that time, what I’ve learned is the unique thing about Dr. DiBella is you’re not just a patient to him,”  Hutcheson said. “He’s a guy you connect with as a person. And I know he can’t do this with everybody, but we have just became good friends, and we’ve shared the journey together through my treatment.”

The field of oncology has completely transformed now, DiBella said, and instead of trying one of a handful of cancer treatment drugs available in the ‘60s and ‘70s, now specific therapies can target certain genes to harness the body’s own cells to fight cancers.

While he’s stepped back from some of his duties in the past three years, as a part of RMCC, DiBella has been a part of numerous drug trials. Those trials have helped test new treatments that have extended the lives of patients and cured cancers that in the beginning of his career would have been a death sentence.

“We, in the private practice community setting, can be much more flexible and efficient in getting these drugs tested. In fact we probably average half as long as the academic centers to accrue the parties through the clinical trials,” DiBella said.

Clinical trials can be a way for patients who are faced with poor odds of survival to find a way to extend their life and possibly beat their cancer. DiBella said RMCC works to make sure patients know not only the possible benefits of the experimental treatments, but also all the risks that come with it.

But for all the excitement that new treatments and cure rates have brought, DiBella is concerned about the future of his field. While new treatments will help continue to increase the rates of survival, the more expensive medicine becomes the harder it will be for patients to access the drugs that could help them live long, productive lives.

For someone who cares and connects with their patients as much as DiBella does, he sees it as a disgrace that cures are there but access is not.

“I’m certain there are people who are not getting the treatment they need throughout the country now,” DiBella said. “Healthcare is the biggest cause of bankruptcy in this country. That shouldn’t be.… If we can spend $15 billion on an aircraft carrier, we can fix medicine with $15 billion and make sure every American got health care.