On average, his patients travel two hours to see him. He’s texting buddies with fellow physicians at places like MSK and MD Anderson. He is sought after internationally for his research on melanoma. Learn why Dr. Agarwala calls St. Luke’s home.
On average, his patients travel two hours to see him. He’s texting buddies with fellow physicians at MSK, Fox Chase, MD Anderson and researchers in Europe and Australia. He is sought after internationally for his research on melanoma. So why does Sanjiv Agarwala, MD choose to make St. Luke’s his home?
“We have something larger institutions lack,” he explains. “When you get really big, it’s hard to stay personal. And when you are diagnosed with cancer, you are afraid. You need someone to walk you through the steps. We do a really good job at St. Luke’s of making sure our patients are supported and that means connecting with them on a personal level.”
Ask his patients if they feel that personal attention and you get one answer: 100 percent.
But they aren’t driving two hours each way just for a hug or a friendly smile. They are seeking the life-saving, ground-breaking care that Dr. Agarwala and his team provide through clinical trials, immunotherapy and the ever-changing science that is cancer research.
“He’s the melanoma expert,” says Lori Riccardi, who was referred to Dr. Agarwala from her hometown hospital in York, Pa. As most people would do, she sought a second opinion. And when the team at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) in New York told her they concurred with Dr. Agarwala’s care plan, it confirmed what she already knew – he was her guy. With her metastatic melanoma now stable, Lori visits St. Luke’s only for routine checkups – she calls them her social visits.
Jimmy Albanese, a contractor from Wilmington, Del., is in a “long-term relationship” with Dr. Agarwala. He was referred to Dr. Agarwala from the University of Pennsylvania and had also been previously seen at MSK. A renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) patient of nearly 20 years, St. Luke’s has helped Jimmy beat the odds time and time again. “I credit them with saving my life,” he says.
According to Dr. Agarwala, his patients are the primary fighters in the war against cancer: “I tell them ‘I am going to give you the tools you need, but your body is going to do the work to fight this,’” when talking about immunotherapy, one of the best ways to combat certain types of genetic-based cancers.
If you spend time with Dr. Agarwala, you soon realize that his humbleness belies his sheer talent. He has that rare ability to compute at a speed and rate far above average,
while simultaneously keeping things “real” for a new patient who may have no clue about the difference between nivolumab (Opdivo®) or pembrolizumab (Keytruda®).
The Melanoma Expert
Dr. Agarwala’s journey to medicine started at a young age. He was attracted to science, in particular, biology. And when a friend developed acute leukemia and was cured by bone marrow transplant – relatively new at the time – Dr. Agarwala knew that medicine could offer him the perfect way to apply his love of science.
For him, melanoma is a particularly interesting and exciting disease to study because it is relatively uncommon. “Because it is rare, you have to collaborate. I work with investigators around the world. It’s a small group of us, so it’s perfectly normal for us to call or text each other to catch up or touch base on a particular clinical trial. Because we are in constant communication, it allows us to make advances quicker,” explains Dr. Agarwala.
Caring for a melanoma patient can be unique in that often the physician is part of a person’s life indefinitely. “For stage 4 cancer, and melanoma in particular, sometimes you are on treatment for the long-haul,” says Dr. Agarwala. “The good news is, they [treatments] can actually work forever.”
For Veronica DaSilva of Effort, Pa., a clinical trial has been the answer to keeping her metastatic melanoma stable. “I feel like I didn’t even have cancer,” she remarks.
Clinical Trials – Quality over Quantity
Nearly all of his patients are on a clinical trial. Many through St. Luke’s and some through other institutions like MSK, Moffit and MD Anderson. At the end of the day, says Dr. Agarwala, what matters is finding the right clinical trial for each patient. “It doesn’t matter how many clinical trials you can offer if you aren’t offering the right ones,” he says.
He credits the Clinical Trials team at St. Luke’s for seeking out the best trials and making them available to patients locally. “Our strategy at St. Luke’s is to select clinical trials that really move the needle on cure rates.”
“The advantage of us offering our own clinical trials is that they are built from the ground up and are located right here. It’s not someone coming to see me and then I’m sending them 50-100 miles away. I will do that if I need to, but 99 percent of the time, I can do it right here,” he says. “We also can offer our patients a lot more availability and face time than if I referred them somewhere else.”
Regarding collaborations with larger institutions like MSK, Dr. Agarwala comments, “It’s natural for patients to gravitate toward the biggest name. But many of those big-name places know us now and I have colleagues there that will refer to us. In fact, I run
conferences where I invite them to speak and we are co-investigators and authors on many of the same trials. Patients are surprised when they hear ‘hey, you can go locally for that same treatment.’”
“It’s a collaboration, always. There are trials that we offer, there are trials that other people offer. St. Luke’s is a ‘free-agent’ if you will – we are beholden to no other organization. At the end of the day, I’m putting my patient on the right trial for them, regardless of where it is offered.”
Personalized Care and Patient/Doctor Partnership
Just like the institute he calls home, Dr. Agarwala is the perfect balance of academic, leading-edge knowledge and personalized compassion.
“When a patient first comes to me,” explains Dr. Agarwala, “I make sure that they know I’m going to be honest with them. We are going to fight this together. We are going to figure out the best option, give you a lot of information to process and we will always have a back-up plan. And a back-up plan to the back-up plan. If there ever comes a day that I don’t have a good treatment for you, I will not enjoy that conversation, but I will tell you. Because above all, I would want someone to be honest with me.”
“My advice to anyone seeking treatment is find out as much as you can about your cancer. You aren’t going to know everything, but learn about it and find the right physician. Finding someone you can trust – that has a health care team you can trust – is so important. Information is key, but eventually you have to put your life in someone else’s hands.”
“It’s always a partnership – you and me working together to get you better.”