It was a question that the young medical student didn’t have an answer to in 1977 that helped launch his prolific career in cancer care.
“A professor in medical school quizzed me about the Philadelphia chromosome,” recalls Sukumar Ethirajan, MD, medical oncologist/hematologist. “I researched it further, reviewed my notes and became fascinated with the role of genetics in cancer.”
The Philadelphia chromosome is a specific chromosomal abnormality associated with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), and Dr. Ethirajan, now with Midwest Cancer Care at Menorah Medical Center, began his challenging career in the world of oncology. He studied tumor biology, biochemistry, radiology and pathology at renowned institutions including Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, NY, Boston University Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Years later in Kansas City, following prestigious fellowships at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Minnesota, the young oncologist came face-to-face with the Philadelphia chromosome on a very personal level.
“My good friend who I played recreational basketball with was diagnosed with CML,” says Dr. Ethirajan. “At that time the only treatment available was a bone marrow transplant, and though he did receive one, his remission was short-lived.”
Soon after his friend’s passing, an oral treatment was introduced to help treat CML. For Dr. Ethirajan, this full-circle experience with the once-elusive Philadelphia chromosome reinforced his choice of practicing oncology and genetics. “When I was in medical school in the late 1970s, specializing in cancer wasn’t a popular career choice,” he says.
Nearly 35 years later, Dr. Ethirajan is widely known for his work in genetics, cancer prevention, risk assessment, personalized care and his altruistic nature. The passionate and compassionate oncologist, in his new role at Midwest Cancer Care at Menorah Medical Center, will focus on expanding services offered to patients, ensuring more personalized care and continuing to help the underserved in the community.
“In 1993, when I began my practice in oncology at Trinity Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City, cancer genetics was a new idea,” says Dr. Ethirajan, who started the first community cancer prevention clinic in the metropolitan area. “Today, it’s an essential part of what of most oncologists do.”
Dr. Ethirajan personally profiles his patients’ tumors and decides the course of treatment for each patient. This hands-on involvement allows him the opportunity to communicate with his patients on a personal level, which according to Dr. Ethirajan, is a critical part of his philosophy as an oncologist. “One of my roles as an oncologist is to lessen the anxiety for both the patient and their family,” he says. “My singular goal is to help the patient get the best possible care through prevention, risk assessment and personalized care.”
Steven D. Wilkinson, chief executive officer of Menorah Medical Center, says the addition of Dr. Ethirajan to Midwest Cancer Care at Menorah helps solidify the hospital’s high-quality patient care. “Our recent accreditation by the National Accreditation for Breast Centers and our recognition as one of 82 accredited cancer programs in the country by the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer shows our dedication to excellent patient care,” says Wilkinson. “We strive to provide our patients with the best care, from diagnosis to treating the whole person and Dr. Ethirajan personifies that commitment.”
In addition to seeing patients at Midwest Cancer Care at Menorah Medical Center, Dr. Ethirajan is a member of the Midwest Cancer Care Physicians practice. He will also continue to see patients at Overland Park Regional Medical Center.
Dr. Ethirajan’s roots in the Kansas City medical community run deep. Through his work with MetroMed and Metrocare for nearly 20 years the physician has seen thousands of uninsured or underserved cancer patients. He has made available community assets for the treatment of these sometimes-forgotten members of society by rallying his fellow physicians to lend their expertise and support.
A tireless volunteer, Dr. Ethirajan has served as president of the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City and on the boards of myriad organizations including Kansas Cancer Coalition, the Kansas City Clinical Oncology Program and the American Cancer Society. He is a member of the REACH Foundation and current President of the Kansas Society of Clinical Oncology (KaSCO), a state affiliate of the national ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology). In addition, Dr. Ethirajan has served as chair of the Cancer Committee at Menorah Medical Center, is vice chairman of the HCA Midwest Health System Institutional Review Board and sits on other institutional review boards.
Dr. Ethirajan has been married to his wife, Sarada, for nearly 28 years. The couple, which has three children, lives in Leawood. In his spare time, Dr. Ethirajan enjoys spending time with his family, playing golf and traveling. “I look forward to expanding services and building upon the high standard of care in Kansas City with the leaders of Midwest Cancer Care and the physicians of HCA Midwest Health System, Kansas City’s largest healthcare network,” says Dr. Ethirajan.