The role Oklahoma will play in curing cancer

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OKLAHOMA - In Oklahoma, we rank the 45th in the country, near the bottom, when it comes to cancer treatment and cancer death.

But, did you know our state legislature started working toward changing that more than 15 years ago?

And, now, in 2016, we are ready to start the process toward being accredited by the National Cancer Institute, the gold standard of cancer care.

NewsChannel 4's Ali Meyer was the only reporter invited to speak with the director of the NCI this month on his first visit to Oklahoma.

Cancer came at 29 years old for Tarah Warren - ovarian cancer, stage 4, terminal.

But, Warren decided, that day, she was going to fight, and her best chance was a NCI clinical trial at Stephenson Cancer Center.

For difficult cancers like Warren's, experimental medicine hold the only hope.

"I feel like clinical trials for cancer patients, it's an extension of hope when you are fighting a life-threatening illness," Warren said. "Not only to help yourself but to help others in the future. That's a really great calling."

Five months after she started chemo, Warren earned her masters and, nine months later, her body was cancer free.

"I was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, and I'm cancer free, and I feel like I owe a lot of that to God and to Stephenson, because they were a catalyst for me being cancer free," Warren said.

Stephenson Cancer Center frames the southern edge of the OU medical complex, the product of more than a decade of work that actually started a few blocks away.

It was 2001 at the Oklahoma State Capitol that House Bill 1079 laid the groundwork for building a comprehensive cancer center in Oklahoma.

It was pretty forward thinking back then for a democratically controlled legislature and republican Governor Frank Keating.

Fifteen years later, Stephenson treats more cancer patients in Oklahoma than any other hospital - one in six Oklahomans with a cancer diagnosis.

It is the largest, most diversifies cancer center in the state.

"We are committed to learning from every patient every day, and you do that through integrating research and cancer care," said Dr. Mannel. "Good cancer care is good clinical care plus good clinical research."

And, good clinical research is good business.

In the past five years, Stephenson has brought in 30 cancer physicians from around the world.

An additional 35 new researchers came with $27 million in funding and then brought in $30 million more.

"So, that's a huge amount of funding coming into Oklahoma," Mannel said. "It's great for our patients. It's great for the state of Oklahoma."

This year, during the State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama announced a federal push to cure cancer - a so-called 'moon shot.'

"For the loved ones we've all lost, for the families we can still save, lets make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," Obama said. "What do you say, Joe? Let's make it happen."

The majority of that biomedical research will be done in the country's 69 NCI designated centers.

Those NCI centers are in 35 states, not including Oklahoma.

In fact, we're in a pocket in the southern plains with no NCI designated facilities.

But, we are getting close.

"The cancer center has really ramped up over the last years, so that the care they are providing and the research they are doing is substantially more than it used to be," said Dr. Lowy.

This month, the director of NCI came to Stephenson for the first time ever - invited by Congressman Tom Cole, who believed Oklahoma needs and NCI facility.

"When you have one of these, you're going to provide better care for your patients, for your people, for the people of Oklahoma," Cole said.

NCI designation means more funding, more high paying biomed jobs and better cancer care for patients like Warren.

"If we can walk on the moon, we can fight cancer," Warren said. "We can cure cancer, and I hope I'm here to see that in my lifetime."

One in three cancer patients will lose their battle with the deadly disease.

In Oklahoma, we are fighting back with more resources than ever.

Stephenson Cancer Center is expected to apply for the peer review accreditation sometime next year, in 2017.

It takes at least a year to get NCI designation status.

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