Dr. Koh Champions Cancer Patients from Coast to Coast, as Provider and Caretaker
Dr. Wui-Jin Koh currently serves as Chief Medical Officer for the National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®), but his connection to cancer spans four decades in academic practice, research, and teaching. Completing his education in California and residency in Seattle, Dr. Koh specialized in treating patients with gynecological and gastrointestinal cancers at the University of Washington. Dr. Koh’s patients found him compassionate and dedicated to their care. In his current role based in Pennsylvania at NCCN, Dr. Koh strives to improve and prolong the lives of people with cancer, both in the US and globally, by involvement in NCCN Guidelines® programs, educational activities, and outreach/collaborative initiatives. Dr. Koh shared with the NCCN Foundation his varied and important perspectives for cancer patients*.
- How did you decide to become a radiation oncologist? What was your experience as a radiation oncologist?
In my senior year of medical school, I’d been accepted into a number of surgery residency programs, but I participated in a one-month elective in radiation oncology and I loved it. Despite radiation oncology being a very technical field, there is a great deal of direct patient interaction and care. I have found it a real honor and privilege to treat patients, who I find to be some of the most courageous and motivated people I’ve ever met. A radiation oncology course can last weeks, and during this intense period the patients and treatment team build a real sense of family and connection. The experience can be very profound, and I have no regrets in switching to radiation oncology.
- In addition to treating patients, you have the experience of being a caretaker as well. What was your experience as a caretaker like?
My wife Judy was an oncology nurse, and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when our children were only in 2nd and 4th grade. Despite our professional and medical experience and knowledge, and the excellent doctors she had, the information could be overwhelming and my primary focus was to be her support and her family. We were blessed with great support and saw the best of people, who sent food and helped in many ways during her 13-year battle. Throughout the experience Judy did not want her cancer to define her and she remained a dedicated and fully involved mother, wife, and person. Regardless of the oncology knowledge we had prior to her diagnosis, it was easy to miss details in the deluge of information. A tool like the NCCN Guidelines for Patients and other resources are so helpful for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis. We now have guidelines specific to cancer sites, but also general support topics like survivorship that can help many people across cancer types.
- With your unique perspectives treating patients, overseeing the development of patient resources and as a caregiver, what is one of the biggest challenges facing people on their cancer journey?
First and foremost is overcoming the initial shock being diagnosed. Following that initial shock, it is important to come to the recognition that there are effective treatments and the importance of participating in your treatment with your team of providers.
- With your work at NCCN, you are integrally involved in creating patient resources that now reach over a million people each year, what does it mean to you to be reaching so many patients?
When I came to NCCN, one of my highest priorities was to get survivorship patient guidelines created and made available to all. There are nearly 17 million cancer survivors living in the United States – roughly 5% of the population. An individual is considered a cancer survivor from diagnosis through the balance of life. In addition to cancer-specific guidelines, providing survivorship information to patients can empower them throughout their cancer management course and thereafter. We also need to recognize the long-term effects of cancer and ways to optimize good health - guidelines like Survivorship Care for Cancer-Related Late and Long-Term Effects and Survivorship Care for Healthy Living can help patients of all cancers. I strongly encourage patients to use and providers to share all the NCCN Guidelines for Patients as close to diagnosis as possible.
- What do you see in the future of cancer treatment and oncology innovation?
My hope is for more individualized cancer treatment that improves cure rates and reduces treatment-related toxicities. I would like to see cancer management strategies that take into account patients’ needs and wishes and are successful in allowing them to continue to fully participate in all the things that are important to them in life. Treatments have certainly come a long way in the past few decades, but more work needs to be done through research. Guidelines, both for healthcare providers and patients, will provide critical guidance in helping patients receive the most up-to-date and best possible care.
- How can current and future cancer patients be supported and helped through the work of NCCN Foundation?
First and foremost, my dream is for NCCN Guidelines for Patients to be readily available to patients as early as possible in their cancer journey, so that they are informed from the beginning, rather than have to play ‘catch-up’. To provide current guidelines, support is needed to update the patient information as clinical information in updated. Together, we can help cancer patients around the world. Those wanting to help cancer patients can donate to support the adaptation, updating and disseminating of patient information HERE or at www.nccnfoundation.org/donate.
*answers edited for clarity and space
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