An innovative partnership between the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) and Stephenson Cancer Center is ensuring that Oklahomans have access to cutting-edge cancer care that’s close to home.
“At this time, 1 out of every 2 men and 1 out of every 3 women in the state of Oklahoma will be diagnosed with cancer sometime in their life,” said Dr. Robert Mannel, director of Stephenson Cancer Center. “And unfortunately, 35% of patients who get a cancer diagnosis will ultimately succumb to their disease. It's a major area of healthcare burden for the state of Oklahoma. And TSET and the Stephenson Cancer Center have partnered to try to address that problem.”
Created by voters in 2000, TSET is a constitutional trust that invests payments from Big Tobacco to the state as part of the Master Settlement Agreement. TSET uses only the earnings from the trust to support programs to improve the health of Oklahomans.
Since 2012, TSET has invested more than $53 million in Stephenson to fund the TSET Phase 1 clinical trials. The program provides promising, experimental treatments to cancer patients from Oklahoma and surrounding states. The research conducted could save lives across the globe.
Monty Russell, an oil field worker from Woodward, is one Oklahoman who found treatment in a clinical trial at Stephenson.
“The chemo wasn't working so I really didn't have much more to fall on until this clinical trial came around,” Monty said. “It's a blessing that my wife found it, and I probably would be dead right now if I didn't find it.”
Monty’s wife, Kelly, said it is important to get cancer treatment close to home.
“When Monty received the diagnosis in 2012, we had two children; a senior in high school and one in grade school,” Kelly said. “We were raising children and we needed to be at home, but he also needed to seek treatment. It was a blessing to have Stephenson Cancer Center right here in the middle of Oklahoma where we could drive to and from in one day and not have to drive or fly.”
Being close to family also meant a support system close-at-hand.
“Our kids have been great,” Kelly said. “His extended family, his mother, sister and brother. All of our family, my sisters, my brother. We have very supportive, extended family and that helps. Monty's employer has been excellent. They have worked with him and they have let him take as much time off as necessary. And I don't know what we would've done without them.”
Dr. Mannel agreed that it’s crucial to keep patients close to their families.
“Before we had partners like TSET investing, our citizens had to make the terrible choice of leaving the state to try to access high-quality care or not having access to that care at all,” he said. “So by having the phase 1 center here, right here in Oklahoma, we can keep families together, patients need their family, they need their support structure and they can do it knowing that they're having the best possible care available anywhere.”
The Phase 1 clinical trial program was vital to Stephenson becoming National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation in 2018.
“We would not be an NCI designated cancer center in Oklahoma. We would not have one of the top phase 1 treatment centers in the entire nation if it weren't for the support of TSET,” Dr. Mannel said. “And not just past support, but ongoing support. Every year we receive grant dollars from TSET, which we are charged with reducing the burden of cancer in Oklahoma and we apply those grant dollars towards that end through our researchers, through our tobacco prevention programs, through our outreach programs and community engagement and involvement.”
TSET’s investment has brought more $182 million of investment in Stephenson. Yet, despite that success, the facility still offers personalized care that puts patients first.
“Being at Stephenson Cancer Center, it's important to us to know that they're there looking out for our best interest,” Kelly said. “This whole process through phase one, they have been so good to him. They just accommodate us as best they can. It's really shown us that there's good in all people.”