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Technology, Teamwork and Trials Add Up to Top Care

Transforming Health Care series highlights CU Cancer Center breakthroughs

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Written by Debra Melani on February 7, 2020

Just over three years ago, a doctor told Karen Possehl the tumors he discovered in her pancreas and liver would kill her within months. No treatment, no surgery, would change that fact, he said.

This week, Possehl told an audience filling an auditorium on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus that she has survived because of the premier care she found at the CU Cancer Center.

“It wasn’t easy,” Possehl told nearly 175 people attending the Transforming Health Care series on Feb. 4. “But it wasn’t that hard,” she added. “I just knew I was going to get through this,” Possehl said, crediting family, friends and “two of the best doctors in the world” who stood behind her in her battle.


CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Eilliman delivers opening remarks at the Transforming Health Care Lecture on Feb. 4 at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Those doctors — Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, and Christopher Lieu, MD  — joined CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman and others on their team, including Drs. Wells Messersmith and Kelly Maloney, in sharing what makes the CU Cancer Center stand out during the distinguished lecture series.

CU Cancer Center renews hope

“Rich was named Cancer Center director in 2018, and in just a year and half, he has guided us through a number of remarkable breakthroughs,” said Elliman in introducing Schulick, a world leader in pancreatic surgery and treatment.


Click here to watch the lecture program in its entirety.

Passion and possibility brought Schulick from Johns Hopkins University to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. “Tell me a more important problem (than fighting cancer),” Schulick said of the disease that took both of his parents and inspired his career of fighting it in a video launching the night’s presentation.

“I came to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus to build a world-class, cutting-edge cancer center.”

Witnessing the growth, innovation and talent on campus during his first visit convinced him to make the move, Schulick told the audience after the video. “I said: You know what? I’m going to be part of that. There is no medical campus that is moving as fast as we are moving.”

Because of that drive toward innovation and the CU Cancer Center’s many designations placing it on the elite end of research, patients like Possehl and two others represented at the event that evening had hope renewed at CU Anschutz.


Dr. Wells Messersmith takes the microphone during a question-and-answer session. He and colleagues shared CU Cancer Center treatment breakthroughs with three highlighted patients.

“It’s not uncommon for patients to come to us and say their cancer is not operable. And I say: Well, yes it is operable,” Schulick said.

Technology boosts treatment, quality of life

Combined with the latest technology, top minds in medical science and groundbreaking research with patients in the earliest-stage trials, leading-edge treatment plans aimed at not just keeping cancer patients alive, but giving them quality of life, are the norm at the cancer center.

“This combined care really benefits our patients,” said Lieu, director of the Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology Program and interim associate director for clinical research. Teamwork makes the difference in CU Anschutz patient care, he said, including in Possehl’s case.

“If any one of us had taken this on as an individual, Karen would not have had the success she has today.”

“Life’s been wonderful. And if it were not for Anschutz, I would not be here. Please let everybody know: This is where to go.” – Karen Possehl, CU Cancer Center patient

Advancements in cancer treatments have made Stage 4 diagnoses no longer guaranteed death sentences and toxic chemotherapy treatments no longer the only primary option, said Lieu, who specializes in Possehl’s type of tumors, or neuroendocrine tumors (NETs).

Characterized by their ability to secrete hormones, NETs can arise in a number of organs in the body and create symptoms that mimic a slew of disorders, often escaping diagnoses from doctors not considering the rare tumors.

“A lot of patients are waiting three to seven years just to get a diagnosis,” Lieu said.

At CU Anschutz, patients undergo a Gallium-68 DOTATATE Scan, an advanced system that dramatically increases clarity. “We can then treat the disease better,” Lieu said, adding that Possehl was one of the first patients in the state to undergo the scan.

By targeting a receptor unique to the NET, doctors have been able to block the release of hormones and the resulting symptoms, dramatically improving patient quality of life while living with the slow-growing tumors. But they didn’t stop there.

“We thought maybe we can go beyond just keeping the cancer steady.”

So they built “a bomb” in the form of Lutetium-177, which attaches to the receptors of NETs but not to normal cells, releasing destructive gamma rays in the cancer cells and creating few to no side effects, Lieu said. “If it doesn’t attach to a cell, the kidneys just excrete it.”

Called Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT), patients receiving it did much better than those receiving standard care in trials, Lieu said. “And Karen was one of the first.”

Patient: CU Anschutz gave her time

PRRT is just one part of the increasing arsenal of highly advanced therapies doctors use at the CU Cancer Center, including the promising immunotherapy.


Dr. Wells Messersmith, left, and Dr. Richard Schulick, right, flank patient Peggy Martin as the trio shares her story of cancer survival.

Wells Messersmith, MD, division head and associate director for translational research, and Kelly Maloney, MD, of Children’s Hospital Colorado, also spoke with their own patients about significant breakthroughs in melanoma and childhood cancer treatments.

Possehl said her team was life saving, kind and understanding. “And they always took their time explaining everything,” said Possehl, who has undergone numerous surgeries and treatments.

“We did meet with Chris (Lieu) today,” Possehl told the audience, glancing at her husband sitting in the front row. “We had an MRI last week. There was no sign of cancer,” she said to a loud round of applause.

What’s next remains unknown, since her treatment is breaking ground, Possehl said. But she will keep enjoying the time the team gave her and spreading the CU Anschutz word.

“I’ve seen a granddaughter get married. I’ve seen a grandson get engaged. I have two grandkids graduating from high school this year and a husband I started dating 60 years ago tomorrow. Life’s been wonderful. And if it were not for Anschutz, I would not be here. Please let everybody know: This is where to go.”