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Thoracic Oncology Spotlight: Doctor Valerie Rusch

Illustration of mesothelioma research

One of the most frequently diagnosed cancers in the U.S., lung cancer effects individuals from all walks of life – young and old, rich and poor, men and women. Statistics from the American Cancer Society (ACS) note that lung cancer is the second-most diagnosed cancer in both men and women and that the disease is responsible for more than one-fourth of all cancer deaths that occur in the United States each year.

While the victims used to be overwhelmingly men, that gap is closing, says the ACS. Cigarette smoking remains the major reason for the disease, but environmental factors, exposure to second-hand smoke, and exposure to asbestos or radon are also responsible for many cases of this aggressive cancer.

For medical professionals who’ve been involved in the treatment of lung cancer, the statistics are frustrating but research continues. Individuals like Dr. Valerie Rusch, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York, know that their ongoing research work will someday result in the rapid decrease of the number of lung cancer cases diagnosed each year.

Rusch has been a thoracic surgeon for more than 25 years. During this time, she’s seen a lot of advances in lung cancer treatment. She’s been personally involved in several of those advances. As a leader in national clinical trials designed to address the treatment of thoracic malignancies, she’s had a firsthand look at promising new approaches.

Dr. Rusch’s own research studies have traditionally focused on the genetics and treatment of several thoracic cancers, including lung cancer, esophageal cancer, and malignant pleural mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Though she admits that researchers have a long way to go in conquering these types of cancer, she’s hopeful that what she and her team are doing has made a difference.

“We are proud of our active participation in national and international clinical trials, and are studying many new ways to help patients with the most difficult cancers, including better methods to diagnose cancers at an earlier stage and the testing of new cancer treatments,” Dr. Rusch stresses.

Connecting with patients is also an integral part of Rusch’s job and she spends plenty of time outside the lab and inside the hospital at MSKCC. She notes her belief in a “hands-on, person-to-person” approach in treating her patients and adds that she and her colleagues use the highest level of technological expertise available for the treatment of thoracic cancers. That includes cutting-edge minimally-invasive surgical procedures that shorten hospital stays and recovery time.

For all of her work with lung cancer patients and those with other thoracic cancers, Dr. Rusch was named to the Miner Family Chair in Intrathoracic Cancers in 2009. The Miner Chair is an endowed chair that was established at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in 2005 in order to “support a physician or scientist who will advance the understanding of and help develop therapies for mesothelioma and other thoracic cancers.” This has provided Rusch with more opportunity to address the plight of mesothelioma sufferers, who are dealing with a form of cancer that has traditionally carried a very grave prognosis.