When Michael Slusher learned he had kidney cancer, he knew he had two excellent options for treatment – one close to home and the other at the UK Markey Cancer Center.
Slusher, community chief executive officer of Middlesboro ARH Hospital, was leaving work in early February 2020 when he began experiencing persistent abdominal pain. He ended up at the hospital’s emergency department, where testing revealed the culprit of his severe pain: kidney stones. Even more worrying, scans also showed a 7-centimeter malignant mass in his left kidney.
Up to 60 percent of kidney cancers are found during tests or scans for something else, such as kidney stones, back pain or accidents. “I’m probably the only person who says, ‘Thank God for a kidney stone,’” Slusher said,“because it discovered my kidney cancer before it metastasized.”
Slusher needed major surgery to remove the tumor. He knew he wanted laparoscopic surgery to reduce his recovery time. His oncologist at Middlesboro ARH, Dr. Mohamed Shanshal, referred him to Dr. Andrew James, a urologic oncologist at Markey. James specializes in open and laparoscopic/robotic-assisted surgery for urologic malignancies.
Because of his job at Middlesboro ARH, Slusher was intimately familiar with Markey and its collaboration with community hospitals, including his own. Through the Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network, local hospitals throughout the Commonwealth provide high-quality cancer care with support from Markey. Middlesboro ARH joined the Network in 2019.
“When I was offered a choice, I knew where I was going without a moment’s hesitation,” Slusher said. “As part of the Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network, I had taken a group of doctors up to Markey for an orientation before I ever had my surgery. I’ve been to UK several times, and my daughter has had surgery there, so I’m very familiar with UK and knew what to expect going in.”
James says laparoscopic surgery is a good option for many people with kidney cancer. “Laparoscopic surgery is a great way to go,” he said. “It’s not always an option, but it is possible in a lot of situations. Many patients leave after one night, and they have smaller incisions, less pain and less time in the hospital.” Slusher was able to go home 24 hours after his procedure and was back at work three weeks later.
Slusher continues to have follow-up care at home with Shanshal, and James remains in close contact to discuss the care plan. “A lot of these patients with tumors need a multidisciplinary approach involving both a surgeon and medical oncologist,” James said. “We have good relationships with oncologists throughout the state who are closer to patients. Being able to continue to see their local medical oncologist for follow-up is often less burdensome.”
Scans performed at Middlesboro ARH showed all of Slusher’s cancer was removed successfully. James reviewed the scans electronically and met with Slusher via a telehealth appointment to discuss the results. “Surveillance is very important after removing these tumors. I remain involved in that process,” James said.
It’s the way the Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network was designed to work. Patients get to stay close to home for as much of their treatment as possible and only travel to Lexington for more complex care. Now, Slusher has seen firsthand how these relationships between local providers and Markey can elevate patient care.
“We’re in a relationship business; that’s what health care is all about,” Slusher said. “And that’s the value of the network affiliation between Middlesboro ARH and UK – it’s those relationships. If Dr. Shanshal picks up the phone and calls Dr. James, he’s going to answer.”