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‘Cancer not a death sentence’

Leading surgeon Shim talks about keeping cancer under control, pain-free

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Published : 2014-02-06 20:00
Updated : 2014-02-06 20:00

Shim Young-mog (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Cancer remains one of the most deadly diseases in human history that has no ultimate cure.

According to a report released on Feb. 4, World Cancer Day, the disease killed about 8.2 million people globally in 2012 and the number of cancer cases is on rise with 14 million reported the same year. The International Agency for Research on Cancer under the United Nations predicts that the number will rise 75 percent to nearly 25 million over the next two decades.

Despite the bleak outlook, Shim Young-mog, a leading surgeon who has been fighting the disease for last 40 years, urges patients not to give up hope just yet.

“Cancer has no cure yet but it is treatable,” he said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald. “Life can go on even with the disease as long as the patient has the will to live and also the doctor’s devotion.”

Shim is a pioneer in the field of lung and esophagus cancer by developing surgical procedures and skills that didn’t exist at the time he was an aspiring surgeon in the 70s. Through constant imaging training, endless research and gutsy operations, he built his reputation as one of the best surgeons in Korea.

The 60-year-old surgeon currently leads the Comprehensive Cancer Center under Samsung Medical Center, one of the top hospitals in Korea.

The survival rates of lung cancer patients who underwent surgeries or treatments by Shim and his team of surgeons and oncologists are notably high. 5 year survival rates of patients in stage 1 reached 71 percent. More than 40 percent of patients in stage 2 and 30 percent of those in stage 3 lived more than 5 years, the hospital said. The survival rate of esophagus cancer patients also hovers around 53 percent, it added.

“My goal is to keep patients alive long enough and (to have them) pursue good quality, near-normal lives. In order to do so, patients and doctors should work together by keeping the disease under control and stopping the disease from progressing,” the surgeon said at the hospital located in Suseo, southern Seoul.

Shim added that patients should let go of their fear of cancer and try embracing it as a chronic disease ― one that requires constant medical care but allows one to carry on with his or her life.

“Cancer is not a death sentence, it is a disease,” he said, adding that the five-year survival rate of cancer patients in Korea is now 65 percent despite the growing number of cancer cases. One-third of Koreans, who have a life expectancy of 81, will suffer from cancer at some point in their lives, he said quoting a recent report.

The country has seen rapid progress in medical technology in the last 30 years.

“The medical state in Korea at that time (70s and 80s) was even lower than that of Mongolia today. Surgeons at Seoul National University Medical Center, which was the largest medical institution, used to operate on lung cancer only and were assisted by one nurse not in the presence of an anesthesiologist,” he said.

It was the two big hospitals, SMC and Hyundai Asan Medical Center that rapidly led the country’s medical development.

“Everything changed by then. The two hospitals set a new concept of patient-centered care bringing a variety of changes in methods and attitude toward patients.”

Shim went on to say that top hospitals should continue to develop customized treatment for each patient and minimize pain both physically and psychologically in the course of tormenting procedures.

“I had a patient in his 70s who was first diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and the cancer progressed to the brain and bone later. Although he was never cured he lived more than 10 years because he received the necessary treatments one at a time and had his pain controlled,” he said.

As part of efforts to help patients pursue a quality life during treatment and after surgery, Shim said the cancer center has been minimizing surgical incisions by utilizing robotic surgery and video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery.

The hospital, through its clinical research unit, also hopes to genetically identify cancers to develop more-targeted drugs. To expand its genomic research for cancer treatment, the medical center has recently established a strategic partnership with the Broad Institute, an U.S.-based biomedical research center. SMC also plans to procure cutting-edge proton beam therapy, the latest version of radiotherapy for cancer. Proton beam therapy uses a high-energy beam of particles to destroy cancer cells and can more precisely localize the radiation dosage. The method is expected to more effectively treat currently incurable cancers such as ocular, brain and spinal cancers, the hospital said.

All these medical advancements may sound savvy, but the more important thing is to prevent cancer. And quitting smoking is the first step, he said.

“It is all about following basic rules. Not smoking should come first as it causes one-third of all cancer cases,” he said.

A combination of unhealthy diet, obesity and inactivity are also leading causes.

“I don’t think people should eat only vegetables to prevent cancer. It is important to have a balanced diet. Koreans in particular should avoid only eating meat or salty fermented food,” he said.

When asked what motivated him to become a surgeon, Shim said he liked interacting with people. He realized that his adventurous and fearless character fits well with cardiothoracic surgery. He went on to study lung and esophagus cancer, while everyone jumped into heart surgery, because there was literally no one doing it at the time.

The life of a surgeon is more dramatic than what people imagine through TV dramas.

One complex surgery usually takes up to 20-30 hours. Stress is enormous as they deal with life and death in the operating room daily.

“Today is the most important day of my life. A surgeon has no tomorrow,” he smiled.

“Now or never, in the operating room, the life of the patient is in our hands. There is no turning back for us.”


Shim’s tips on preventing cancer

1. Quit smoking. Smoking causes one-third of all cancer cases.

2. Avoid burnt, greasy food.

3. Have a balanced diet. Eating meat is good as long as it’s served with other necessary ingredients.

4. Take moderate exercise and pursue a stress-free life

5. Get a medical checkup on a regular basis. The survival rate is much higher when the disease is found at an early stage.


Profile of Shim Young-mog

― Shim Young-mog, one of the country’s leading thoracic surgeons, has served as director of Samsung Comprehensive Cancer Center under Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, since 2007. He is a noted authority on lung and esophageal cancers who pioneered the field of medicine from the early 80s.

― He also serves as professor of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery department of Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine.

― Shim studied at Seoul National University College of Medicine and at MD Anderson Cancer Center in the United States as a visiting physician.

― In 2010, the surgeon received a commendation from the Ministry of Health and Welfare for his contribution in the development of cancer treatments and improving surgical procedures.


By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)

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