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What’s so special about a medical specialist?

Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute
Doctors must stay up on the latest medicine, technology and breakthroughs.

Big box stores offer convenience by carrying all kinds of items. In just one trip, you can pick up a loaf of bread, shampoo, bath towels and a new board game. While this might make life easier, there are some things that you might not want to — or be able to — purchase at the one-stop shop. Specialty running stores can help you find the perfect shoe for your stride, and for the most sparkling rings, you may seek a specialty jeweler.

There are many parallels in medical care. A primary care provider or general hospital can treat a wide range of ailments. When you sprain your ankle or come down with a cold, many reliable sources can offer care. In some cases though, when an injury or disease is more complex, you may seek specialized care. A cancer diagnosis may be one of these times.

Knowing the ins and outs of every disease would be impossible, which is why specialization is important.

In the world of cancer care, there is a lot to know. Doctors must stay up on the latest medicine, technology and breakthroughs. These can vary from one type of cancer to another. For example, some forms of cancer have specific gene mutations that can be treated with specialized drugs. Other forms of cancer respond well to immunotherapies, which use the body’s own defenses to fight off disease. Even more familiar treatments, such as chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, can be used very differently based on cancer type and stage. In addition, there are hundreds of clinical trials available to patients who meet specific requirements.

Knowing the ins and outs of every disease would be impossible, which is why specialization is important. Oncologists are doctors who specifically focus on treating cancer. Many doctors have even narrower disciplines within this field, such as imaging (radiation oncologists) or a specific type of cancer, such as lung, colon or blood.

Mohammed Najeeb Al Hallak, M.D., MS, is a member of the Gastrointestinal and Neuroendocrine Multidisciplinary Team at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. He sees patients with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors and other cancers of the gastrointestinal system such as colorectal, stomach and liver cancers. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are quite rare, with an incidence rate of less than one in 100,000. The American Cancer Society estimates that only about 4,200 people are diagnosed with this disease each year in the US.

“When patients are diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, they are often worried. They hear that it is a rare diagnosis, and it causes concern. But in fact, when we catch these tumors early, the prognosis is good, and the survival rate is high. However, it is important that these tumors are treated by physicians who are familiar with the tumor behavior. I, along with my team members, am accustomed to seeing patients with this diagnosis; we focus our work on it. Although the diagnosis of a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor is rare and many general oncologists might be unfamiliar, we have the tools, including clinical trials, needed to treat this disease at Karmanos,” Dr. Al Hallak said.

Knowing that even rare diseases have experts can bring some comfort. But how do you find such an expert? One way is to look for a hospital’s designations or certifications. For example, a designation from the National Cancer Institute ensures that hospitals demonstrate expertise in laboratory, clinical and population-based research. To earn this status, hospitals must also provide early-phase clinical trials and conduct community outreach and educational activities. This means patients can access exclusive treatments, cancer prevention programs and multidisciplinary teams of cancer specialists — a comprehensive approach you often cannot find at a community hospital.

Karmanos offers 15 multidisciplinary teams consisting of cancer specialists who have devoted their careers to fighting one type of cancer.

Karmanos Cancer Institute is the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center in metro Detroit and one of just 51 centers of its kind in the United States. At Karmanos Cancer Institute, doctors, nurses and other care team members focus solely on treating patients with cancer. This means that they have extensive knowledge and experience. Even further, Karmanos offers 15 multidisciplinary teams consisting of cancer specialists who have devoted their careers to fighting one type of cancer, such as breast, lung, colon or prostate. Team members include specialists from many disciplines, including diagnostic, medical and surgical oncology; pathology and genetics. These multidisciplinary teams thrive on collaboration. The entire team reviews diagnostic information and works together to offer care that reflects the latest thinking from their specialty.

If you or a loved one are diagnosed with cancer, make sure that your provider is an expert. Schedule with a specialized team at Karmanos Cancer Institute by visiting karmanos.org or calling 1-800-KARMANOS.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.
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