Transforming Cancer Care in Our Region
Years ago, when Drue Jennings’ first wife was diagnosed with cancer, they had no choice but to leave Kansas City for her cancer treatment.
“At the time, there were no area oncologists who could treat her advanced cancer. For years, we commuted to Texas for treatment,” Jennings, former chairman and CEO of Kansas City Power & Light, said. “While in Texas, I was so impressed that there was a public hospital, accessible to anyone nearby. Anyone could walk in and receive world-class treatment. I thought to myself, Kansas City should be able to do this.”
It was Jennings experience and others that helped catalyze the call for a robust cancer center in Kansas City. Jennings, along with local philanthropists Bill Hall, of the Hall Family Foundation, and Charlie Sunderland, of the Sunderland Family Fund, were early champions of The University of Kansas Cancer Center.
Interestingly, both Hall and Sunderland have also been personally affected by this terrible disease. Like Jennings, Hall had to go outside of Kansas City for his bone marrow transplant.
“Kansas City just didn’t have the services at the time,” Hall said. “Of course, now, we have one of the largest bone marrow transplant centers in the world,” he added.
Sunderland, too, required a stem cell transplant.
“I could’ve gone anywhere, but I was confident in the program and chose to be treated at KU,” he said.
“There’s no reason for any cancer patient to leave Kansas City. The level of care, combined with cutting-edge research, has been transformational to this community.”
The Hall Family Foundation and Sunderland Family Fund’s latest contribution is the newly established medical oncology professorship at KU Cancer Center. The professorship was created through a $1.3 million challenge grant from the Hall Family Foundation and met by a $650,000 donation from the Sunderland Family Fund.
They chose to name the professorship the A. Drue Jennings Professorship in Medical Oncology to honor their longtime friend. The gift will support the salary, travel and associated costs for the professorship, which will be at KU Cancer Center and in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“You invest in people. And Dr. Jensen, the center’s director, was one of the best investments we have ever made. But we can’t stop there. We need to continue hiring the best talent,” Hall said.
Sunderland and Jennings, with significant support from the Hall Family Foundation, helped KU Cancer Center obtain prestigious National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation in 2012. The professorship is another step forward in KU Cancer Center’s pursuit of NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center designation.
“Moving toward Comprehensive designation is challenging, and Dr. Jensen needs the right resources to hire the right people. This opportunity helps him and the Cancer Center,” Sunderland said.
Sunderland, who was approached by Jennings to discuss the challenge grant, said it was an easy decision to answer the Hall Family Foundation’s challenge.
“We sat down to lunch and Drue explained to me how vital this professorship was to the KU Cancer team. My decision was made by the end of the meal,” he said.
Hall, Jennings and Sunderland agree that KU Cancer Center’s impact – to patients, families, the scientific community and the economy – has been far-reaching.
“Due to the incredible leadership of Dr. Jensen and the national recognition that comes from being an NCI-designated center, every aspect of the center – including The University of Kansas Hospital and KU Medical Center – has been elevated over the last several years,” Jennings said.
Jennings noted that NCI designation has created a ripple effect for the greater Kansas City area’s economy. The cancer center alone accounts for nearly $3.5 billion in economic impact, including more than 3,300 jobs created since 2007.
Still, access to high-quality cancer care, including preventive medicine, rural outreach and early detection, Hall said, is the greatest contribution the center has made to the community.
“At the end of the day, providing world-class care in Kansas City is the single most important issue,” Hall said. “There’s somebody out there who is going to be saved because of this institution.”
Jennings notes that the cancer care available to Kansas Citians today has significantly improved. Now, Kansas and Missouri families affected by cancer don’t have to add to the stress of treatment by having to travel a great distance.
“There’s no reason for any cancer patient to leave Kansas City. The level of care, combined with cutting-edge research, has been transformational to this community,” Jennings said.