Dr. Paul Sugarbaker, a highly revered pioneer in cancer surgery, is the Director of Surgical Oncology and director of the Peritoneal Surface Malignancy Program at Washington Cancer Institute at the Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center. Many of the surgical techniques developed by Sugarbaker (whose brother David also is a highly regarded thoracic surgeon) are used by cancer surgeons throughout the country. Hundreds of his studies have been published and one of his cancer textbooks (on sarcoma surgery) has been translated into five languages.
The “Sugarbaker Procedure” refers to his signature treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma and other cancers of the abdomen, which involves removal of the lining of the abdomen, followed by close examination of the abdominal organs and removal of any tumors. Then, a heated chemotherapy solution is applied to the abdomen, where it surrounds the organs for roughly 90 minutes before the solution is drained and the incisions are stitched back together.
Although this procedure was considered too radical at the time by many surgeons, it has been credited with extending the lives of patients by at least five years and even by 10 or more for some. This procedure helped change the overall outlook for mesothelioma from a terminal illness to a more-manageable, chronic disease. In fact, Sugarbaker has been quoted numerous times that he is convinced mesothelioma will one day be cured; however, he stresses that not everyone is a good candidate for treatment.
In his own practice, Sugarbaker employs a multimodal approach to mesothelioma that includes a mix of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation treatment. He also has championed the use of “chemosurgery,” a combination of cytroreductive surgery (the removal of all detectable cancer cells) and intraperitoneal chemotherapy (a more targeted approach to chemotherapy). Prior to selecting patients for treatment, he reviews candidates’ pathology, medical history, and CT scans. In addition to mesothelioma, Sugarbaker has treated patients with cancers of the colon, appendix, ovaries, and bowels.
A veteran of cancer research, Sugarbaker’s 800+ publications cover the use of “second-look” surgery for cancer patients, management of disseminated colorectal cancer, and other topics that underscore his theme that “It’s what the surgeon doesn’t see that kills the patient.” Much of his research focuses on the peritoneal surface component of cancer. Despite his long tenure as a cancer surgeon, he continues to challenge the status quo with respect to cancer treatment.
Sugarbaker earned his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in Ithaca, New York, in 1964 and completed a 10-year residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He then went to become the Arthur Tracy Cabot Fellow in Surgery at Harvard, where he earned his master’s degree in immunology. He spent three years at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta before taking on leadership positions at the Washington Cancer Institute. Sugarbaker is a founding member of the International Society of Regional Cancer Therapy and founder of the nonprofit Foundation for Applied Research in Gastrointestinal Oncology.
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