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What does it mean to be a Comprehensive Cancer Center?

The head of VCU Massey Cancer Center explains the importance of this designation and how this recognition will transform cancer care in Virginia.

Patients and caregivers walk through the entrance of VCU Massey Cancer Center in the VCU Health Adult Outpatient Pavillion. VCU Massey Cancer Center was recently designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center from the National Cancer Institute. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU Massey Cancer Center recently joined the ranks of an elite group of cancer centers across the United States after receiving its designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the nation’s principal authority on cancer research and training.

54 sites are NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, with only about 10 in the south. This designation highlights how Massey is influencing a new standard of care through a community-centered approach, recognizing community members as equal experts and strategic partners in its research efforts.

“Comprehensive is not just a name; it is validation from the NCI that we have proven excellence in laboratory research, population science and clinical research,” said Robert A. Winn, M.D., Massey director and Lipman Chair in Oncology. “The NCI thoroughly measured our impact on the community through outreach and engagement, while also considering our integration of cancer training and education of biomedical researchers and community health care professionals.”

Winn shares with VCU Health News what the comprehensive status designation will do for patients, research projects and community members.

How will this designation improve the lives of Virginians in Massey’s catchment area?

As an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Massey has access to more resources that allow us to ultimately become an even stronger, more aligned institution. The advanced discoveries in science coupled with community collaboration will lead to better patient care and healthier communities.

As other cancer centers have experienced in their regions, comprehensive status also brings the potential for pharmaceutical and independent research companies and related industries to initiate operations in Richmond. Being in closer proximity to Massey creates a research hub for them and provides economic benefits to the community by creating jobs and increasing tax revenue to support school districts and other municipal agencies.

What does this new designation mean for Massey’s research efforts?

This designation allows Massey to be the first in a new generation of cancer centers that integrates the community in all of the research we do. Comprehensive status carries a substantial level of credibility in the field of oncology and offers Massey more research funding from the NCI.

Now that Massey has earned this recognition, we are able to recruit and retain the most competitive scientists from around the world. Their areas of expertise broaden the scope of Massey’s research and allow us to advance science through new methodologies and take established areas in new directions.

Subsequently, Massey’s entire team of researchers has more leverage in their funding applications because grants often beget additional grants. Increasing Massey’s capacity for research opens doors to new discoveries and builds collaborations across VCU and with other research institutions.

What does “community-to-bench” mean and how can other cancer centers or community organizations adopt this model?

Community-to-bench means that the people we serve guide our research. Instead of following traditional models that keep much of the process inside a laboratory, Massey engages individuals in their communities; they are essential partners at every level of our research – design, implementation, evaluation and dissemination.

The data we collect from the community helps us to refine scientific questions. We can then take medical innovations back to the community through clinical trials to serve specific needs and have a greater impact on overall health.

Other institutions can adopt this model by holding a bi-directional dialogue with community members and infusing their needs into all research and daily operations. Speaking “with” people instead of “at” them allows greater access to information that can catalyze change to help eliminate disparities.

How does Massey’s work align with the national fight against cancer?

Massey consulted with individuals throughout our service area to update the mission and vision outlined in our 2021-2025 Strategic Plan. Our priorities are aligned with objectives included in the National Cancer Plan and the Biden Administration’s Cancer Moonshot 2.0. In an effort to cut cancer mortality by at least 50% in the next 25 years, Massey is working to increase access to lifesaving cancer screenings for early detection, especially in at-risk communities.

With a particular emphasis on lung, breast, prostate and gastrointestinal cancers, we aim to level the disproportionate incidence and mortality among key demographics. Massey is already making progress toward national goals through clinical research, tobacco cessation and cancer screening programs. Additionally, Massey connects recently diagnosed patients and those in active treatment to nurse navigators who are specific to disease type; the nurse navigators are able to guide the patients through the continuum of care, including survivorship.

What comes next for Massey?

At Massey, one treatment does not fit all. As our researchers continue to make advances in immunotherapy, more patients will benefit from it and other types of personalized medicine. Massey will also enhance the lives of a greater number of individuals facing a cancer diagnosis, including family members, through our Integrative Health and Survivorship Programs.

Massey recognizes that lowering cancer incidence and mortality requires not only looking at DNA but also ZNA, which is an individual’s zip code and neighborhood of association. Prevention programs will focus on the intersection of place and space with cancer. Our Community Outreach and Engagement team will take more resources directly to communities, including with mobile vans.

Transportation is a challenge for patients, so Massey supports policy changes to close broadband gaps, allowing for increased telehealth opportunities. Building trust across historically underrepresented communities is paramount to the reduction of the cancer burden. Massey will expand current and initiate new collaborations with like-minded institutions; together we can and will move the needles in cancer research, prevention and care.

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