Kansas City, Kan. — Coming together in celebration of the Kansas University Cancer Center’s formal designation from the National Cancer Institute Thursday, political and university leaders hailed the event as transformational for the state and region.
Cancer patients will have access to treatments and clinical trials only available at NCI-designated centers, and the federally funded research will be a boon to the state and local economy.
“Today is the day that many of us have been waiting for,” said Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center. “In some cases, that wait has been 38 years.”
KU first applied for designation in 1974, and was denied. Work began anew on achieving designation nearly a decade ago, and former KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway made the designation the university’s top research priority in 2005.
On Thursday, the KU Cancer Center became the nation’s 67th nationally designated center. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said that KU was the only one of three new applicants to receive designation this year. While most Kansans may not have any idea what the letters NCI mean, they really will turn out to mean a great deal for them and their families in the future, Moran said.
“It means a tremendous transformation in who we are as Kansans,” he said. “It changes the character of who we are as a state.”
It was Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and a former Kansas governor, who formally delivered the news to university leaders on Thursday.
“Today, the NCI designation makes KU researchers even more competitive as they seek federal and philanthropic support,” she said.
Several other city, state and federal politicians offered their support for the cause. U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., attended, while U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., and Gov. Sam Brownback expressed their support in video messages.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was unable to attend the ceremony because of potential votes in the Senate, but praised the effort Thursday morning in a speech on the Senate floor.
“This designation is such an important development for my state because it means that many Kansans and their families who have faced frightening diagnoses — and trying treatments — will no longer have to seek cures in Texas and Minnesota,” Roberts said. “They can, and will be able to, stay closer to home and their support systems. Simply put, it’s great news for Kansas patients.
The event saw many congratulations and praise for Jensen, including from KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, who described the first time she met him.
“I asked him about his work, and in a completely straightforward way he told me ‘I am going to do this,’” she said. “Another time, he said, ‘I’m going to do this and I will not be deterred.’ So now I listen to Roy.”
KU will now begin working toward comprehensive cancer center designation, an additional designation from the NCI that is the highest possible designation a cancer center can receive.
Jensen said KU would submit its application for comprehensive cancer center status in 2015. That designation is awarded on different criteria from the initial designation, including population-based research and a cancer center’s outreach efforts.
The assembled crowd gave several standing ovations throughout the hour-long event Thursday afternoon, including one for two former KU leaders — Hemenway and Barbara Atkinson, the former KU Medical Center executive vice chancellor — both of whom attended the event. Jensen himself received two standing ovations, both before and after he spoke.
Jensen became emotional during the ceremony when he thanked his family, who uprooted themselves “from a self-described idyllic life” in Nashville, leaving left a recently renovated house to move to Kansas City.
“That was a big sacrifice,” he said. “And they supported me in that effort.”
There were many other thanks to go around Thursday, as leaders praised the community effort that was bolstered by the help of political leaders from both sides of the aisle and private donors.
Donors contributed more than $107 million in support of the effort, including 20 separate gifts of $1 million or more. The Kansas Masonic Foundation made an initial $20 million gift in 2004 that helped recruit Jensen to the state. Kansas City philanthropist Annette Bloch and the Hall Family Foundation each also contributed $20 million or more.
Bill Whitaker, a cancer survivor from Shawnee who received treatment at KU for his stage four squamous cell carcinoma, spoke at the event. He said before he was diagnosed, he didn’t know what the NCI was or what a clinical trial was. Eight years later, he said he now had a better appreciation for what Thursday’s news meant.
“I hope to be able to see people from here on out,” he said. “Instead of one day they’re here, and one day they’re not.”