A Joy for Evers

Dr. Mark Evers


What makes people who they are? Not in the molecular sense, where every living thing on the planet forms its proteins from some combination of the same common 20 amino acids.

No, no. We’re talking about something more enigmatic. How do you explain the origins of someone’s drive, their ambition and curiosity? Their tenacity? Is it nature vs. nurture? Or, Is it both?

For Mark Evers, M.D., he claims it’s something more pure, simple: “You know, I was so terribly naive,” he laughed. “I look back now and think, gosh, I was lucky.”

What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

Yet there’s nothing in the career stats of Dr. Evers that alludes to chance playing any part in him landing in Lexington, Ky., to serve as the director of the UK Markey Cancer Center in 2009. That is, unless you count a hurricane as “luck.”

Before taking the helm at Markey, Dr. Evers had served as the Robertson-Poth Distinguished Chair in General Surgery and Director of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) Cancer Center in Galveston, Texas. Then in September 2008, hurricane Ike made landfall at 2:10 a.m. near Galveston. And its 110 mph winds whipped through the city, taking with it an unconscionable amount of data Dr. Evers and his colleagues had been working on.

“I had biospecimens, I had 10 years of colon cancer cases,” explained Dr. Evers. “And all that was lost.”

With the power wiped out by the hurricane and the lower floors of the building flooded, all of his research was lost. While Dr. Evers had previously considered offers, it wasn’t until now that he knew he had to make a move.

Dr EversThe Impact of One Stoplight

But major moves weren’t anything new for Dr. Evers; his origin story looks nothing like where he’s ended up. With a population of around 1,700, Loretto is a small farming community in southern middle Tennessee and the place where Dr. Evers grew up.

A one-stoplight town has become a familiar way to describe sleepy, rural areas. Yet in the case of Loretto, Tenn., this literally sums up the extent of its transportation planning. But that’s all it requires really when the entire town is no bigger than 4 square miles.

Though small in radius, it had a major impact on the future of Dr. Evers. His father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority for 40 years but spent his free time tending to their family farm (“That was his hobby,” explained Dr. Evers).

Yet that very hobby is what put he and his sister through medical school. Of course, they were required to put in a little sweat equity over the summers, baling hay by hand and helping with the cattle. And although his father only went to school through the 8th grade, Dr. Evers learned something just as essential from him as he would in any textbook: work ethic.

While his father provided the inspiration, it was another influential Loretto resident who provided the outlet. Dr. Henry Thomas was your quintessential small-town doctor who treated everything from diabetes in the clinic to removing a gall bladder in the operating room. “I had the good fortune to shadow someone who was sort of the pillar of the community,” said Dr. Evers. “There was God, then there was Dr. Thomas right under that.”

So, his plan was to go to medical school, then return to Lawrence County (where Loretto is located) to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Thomas.

Best-laid Plans

Dr. Evers attended medical school at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, then completed his residency at the University of Louisville, School of Medicine. This is where he found his role model Hiram C. Polk, Jr., M.D. “Dr. Polk is legendary and has been a tremendous influence on my career path. To this day, I still call him for advice,” explained Dr. Evers. “He definitely knew me better than I knew myself.”

It was under Dr. Polk’s mentorship as the department chair for surgery where Dr. Evers became immersed in all aspects and specialties of surgery. In his last year of his surgical residency, Dr. Evers shared his plan to return to Lawrence County and go into private practice with Dr. Thomas. But Dr. Polk saw another passion in Dr. Evers: research. After learning about an academic track research fellowship in GI physiology, Dr. Polk knew this would be a good move for him and recommended he apply for the two-year opportunity at UTMB. This is where his new path as a cancer researcher would begin.

In a lab led by James Thompson, M.D., it was there that Dr. Evers embarked on research with another outstanding role model and mentor, Courtney Townsend, M.D., to discover the relationship between gut hormones and their effects on cancer.

And thus began his journey into the field of cancer, which brings us full circle… to the hurricane.

Dr. Mark EversA Vision in UK Blue

In the midst of devastation, a silver lining was found by way of Michael Karpf, M.D., the Executive Vice President for Health Affairs at UK HealthCare from 2003-2017. With his sights set on elevating Markey to an NCI-designated cancer center, Dr. Karpf met with Joseph B. Zwischenberger, M.D., a former faculty member at UTMB and now a professor at the UK College of Medicine. He shared his insight on the success Dr. Evers and his team had had at UTMB, and that set Dr. Karpf’s plan in motion.

If Markey was to become an NCI-designated cancer center, then it needed a heavy lift … and with a splash as opposed to drop by drop.

“Zwischenberger convinced me that Dr. Evers was not the kind of person who would only come by himself, but he was such a leader that a number of his people would likely come with him,” said Dr. Karpf. “Well, when Dr. Evers arrived, he brought seven NIH-funded investigators and laboratory technicians with their families.”

And just like that, around 125 people moved from the beach to the Bluegrass. Lexington’s population increased by 125 former Galvestonians practically overnight. How did they decide to uproot their lives and move over 1,000 miles based on the word of one person?

Depends on the person, right? “There are several things that make him a good leader. One, he does have humility. And two, he is an extraordinarily hard worker,” explained Dr. Karpf. “If you take a look back and see the people that came with him from Galveston, many of them are now the leaders of critical programs in the cancer center. He matures them into people who could get recruited away but they stay in Kentucky because of the kind of leader Mark Evers is.”

“The Big C” Now Stands for Change

As with many of us, the people we grow into is rooted in events that deeply impacted us early on. And this holds true for Dr. Evers, who suffered a devastating loss as a young child. When he was just 4 years old, Dr. Evers lost his best playmate to leukemia. “I mean, that was a shocking experience at that age,” he lamented. “One day you’re playing with him, the next day you hear he’s sick, the next day you hear he’s died. Gone.”

Such a heavy memory can either evolve into an albatross around one’s neck or used as a catalyst for change. Dr. Evers chose the latter.

“I’ve been in the cancer field now for 30 years and I’m totally serious about this: I’m the most excited that I’ve ever been.”

Mark Evers, M.D.

“When I started out, if you saw a colon cancer patient who had metastatic disease, it was just a death sentence.”

Back then, a 25-year-old young woman and a 75-year-old gentleman with the same diagnosis would get one of the two or three drugs available at the time, rolling the dice in hopes it would work for at least one of them. Today, vast inroads have been made thanks to immunotherapy with precision medicine. “We’re looking at the tumors and the genetic mutations, and we’re able to tailor the drugs based upon specific mutations and that to me is so exciting,” he said.

Dr. Evers points to former President Jimmy Carter, who was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2015, as an example of the impact of immunotherapy. “He goes on one of the early clinical trials and, look at him now; he’s still alive,” he said. “You know, that’s just unheard of! So, I see the changes that have occurred, and it makes me excited every morning when I get up. It’s the sign that we are starting to make a difference with this terrible disease.”

Yet it’s not just beloved leaders who are benefiting from these advanced clinical trials. The work done by Dr. Evers and his team at the Markey Cancer Center is driven by one main demographic: the entire populace of Kentucky. “I want to see us move the needle and no longer be the state with the highest cancer incidence and mortality rate,” he said. “We’re doing this for Kentucky and the nation.”

And with a new building in development, it’s going to make it that much easier for Kentuckians coming to Markey to receive treatment. Because it’s no secret that navigating the numerous corridors that house the various locations and treatment options is, well, overwhelming to say the least. “This place is like New York City!” said Dr. Evers of people coming from rural areas of Kentucky. “[Patients] are so bewildered when they get dropped off that they don’t know where to go. There are so many buildings.”

The new building will house every treatment option a patient will need from labs to radiology and everything in between. And he credits his team with seeing this come to fruition under his watch. “It’s absolutely attainable, and it’s all due to them,” he said with complete sincerity. “The collaboration, the willingness to work together, to think outside the box. That’s what excites us all.”

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