Cornell University Medical College
Medical Director, Center for Gastrointestinal Malignancies
Brigham and Women's Hospital
Oncologist Dr. Paul Sugarbaker has spent a lifetime refining the techniques that have made him one of the world’s most renowned authorities in gastrointestinal surgical oncology.
He gives hope to patients with peritoneal mesothelioma.
Sugarbaker is medical director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Malignancies at MedStar Washington Hospital. He now serves as investigator and mentor for the staff. He also is the brother of pleural mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker.
He is best known for his expertise in surgical oncology for rare diseases like mesothelioma, pseudomyxoma peritonei, abdominal sarcomas and peritoneal carcinomatosis from colorectal cancers.
Sugarbaker is widely regarded as the original pioneer in the field of cytoreductive surgery with the accompanying heated intraoperative intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), which is being utilized in specialty centers across the country today.
The treatment is often referred to as “The Sugarbaker Procedure,” and regarded by many as the last hope for patients with many different advanced-stage abdominal cancers. It involves surgically removing as much of the visible cancer as possible, then soaking the entire abdominal cavity with a heated chemotherapy solution for 90 minutes before draining it.
The procedure is a major reason why many of his peritoneal mesothelioma patients have survived many years beyond original expectations, even changing the face of the disease. He is a big reason that mesothelioma is no longer the death sentence it once was. There still is no definitive cure, but some of his patients have survived 10 years and beyond.
“I don’t share the pessimism [for mesothelioma] that others have,” Sugarbaker said. “I think it can be cured. I’m convinced that it can be cured. There will be a cure. I would hope that we get to the point where patients will go home cancer free and then just follow up with their oncologist.”
He bases his optimism on both the gradual and most recent advancements, a multimodality approach to treatment that often includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Also contributing is the careful selection of patients he believes he can help with surgery.
“The most satisfying thing is seeing people do well in the long run,” he said. “We do have terrific outcomes now with most of the people we take to the operating room.”
History has taught him exactly what type of patient he can help, and which patients he can’t. Younger, obviously, is better. Women, generally, have had better outcomes than men with mesothelioma.
Over the past 23 years, he has been the attending surgical oncologist at the Washington Hospital Center Cancer Institute for more than 1,500 HIPEC and cytoreductive procedures. Those covered various gastrointestinal cancers, including colon, appendix, ovarian, small bowel and mesothelioma.
He recently published a textbook and video atlas detailing the history of “The Sugarbaker Procedure.” It was the latest of several medical books he has written. One about sarcoma surgery is published in five languages. He also has published more than 800 scientific articles and book chapters.
Sugarbaker received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College and a Master of Science degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He spent 10 years as a senior surgeon at the National Cancer Institute within the National Institutes of Health. He left to become the medical director of the Washington Cancer Institute.
He continues to lecture nationally and internationally, is a founding member of the International Society of Regional Cancer Therapy and sits on the editorial boards of 11 medical journals.
“I can’t take care of all mesothelioma patients,” he said. “We’re selective. They don’t get to us until we’ve reviewed their pathology, their history, their CT scans and found the ones we think we can help.”