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He walks into the room, fresh from a lunch at an iconic burger joint where he met with a guy whose name is recognized not only as a former Indianapolis Colts player, but also as someone who is well connected with enterprising people throughout the city.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Patrick Loehrer mentions a few more names – not casual acquaintances, but friends. His office inside the Indiana Cancer Pavilion at IU Health is filled with photos of him posing with some of these friends. As a photography enthusiast, he has taken other photos of people, places, and events. The office is also filled with memorabilia – his collection of signed footballs, framed jerseys, carved wooded figures from Kenya, and stuff that means something only to him. On a shelf in the middle of it all rests “The Book of Uncommon Cancer.”
Dr. Loehrer refers to himself jokingly as a hoarder, but his conversation begs to differ. He is a connector. From the people he meets with over lunch to the scholarly papers he authors about cancer research, Dr. Loehrer thrives on creating links, connecting the dots.
When asked what he would like to see as his lasting footprint on his profession, Dr. Loehrer says: “Maybe that I was able to pull people together to work for the greater good.”
Consider for a minute that this is a man who:
What makes him a good doctor? “That implies I am a good doctor,” he says modestly. Then he adds: “Most doctors are good. It’s like being in the NFL. Most of the men in the NFL are great athletes. Similarly, the selection just to get into medical school is tough and just like the NFL, by the time you go through all the training, you are ready to be your best.” The comparison offers a hint of his lifelong interest in all things football.
There are several things that can be credited with his knowledge and know-how of medicine and connectivity. One is that he didn’t start out to be a doctor. In fact, Dr. Loehrer entered Purdue University set on a career in engineering. Similarly, his initial medical interests were not in the area of oncology.
He gives credit to a number of mentors along the way including his mother who was a groundbreaker in her own right. As a nurse at a Catholic school in Illinois, she introduced the first sex education course (much to his chagrin). When the family moved to Indiana, Dr. Loehrer attended Belzer Middle School and then Lawrence Central High School. It was at Lawrence Central where he met his future wife Debi – the young woman he invited to prom his senior year. Together they have three children – two sons, 38 and 35, and a daughter, 31.
He talks often about the circle of friends that he formed in high school - a circle that continues today.
“I’ve always loved science. I was struggling between being a teacher and a doctor and I asked a teacher friend from Belzer what I should do and he encouraged me to become a doctor,” said Dr. Loehrer. He received his undergraduate degree in engineering in 1975 and his medical degree from Rush Medical College in 1978. He completed his internship and residency at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center and a fellowship in medical oncology at Indiana University.
It was at IU School of Medicine where he met medical oncologist Dr. Lawrence H. Einhorn known for developing an innovative treatment for testicular cancer that has dramatically improved outcomes for men diagnosed with the disease.
“I told Larry Einhorn ‘I want to practice oncology and I want to practice it with you,’” said Dr. Loehrer. Years later, Dr. Einhorn nominated Dr. Loehrer for a Health Care Hero Award. In the nomination Dr. Einhorn wrote: “Dr. Loehrer is a Health Care Hero on a global stage. He is arguably the world’s leading expert in the treatment of thymic malignancies and has established Indiana University as the national, if not world-leading, center for treatment of this malignancy.” Loehrer won the annual Health Care Hero Award presented by the Indianapolis Business Journal in 2015.
The word “global” resonates with Loehrer as he focuses on the future of cancer research and care. The same year he received the Health Care Hero Award, Dr. Loehrer witnessed another milestone that began as a dream – the opening of the Chandaria Cancer and Chronic Diseases Centre in Kenya. Before the four-story facility was opened, chemotherapy was administered in a tent. Dr. Loehrer’s vision resulted in the fundraising and staffing that opened the center that now serves the population of 18 to 20 million people living in Western Kenya, including screening 1,000 women monthly for cervical and breast cancer.
“This program was inspired by Drs. Bob Einterz and Joe Mamlin who established the AMPATH Program treating HIV/AIDs. Through this, I’ve seen a growth and interest in global oncology among young and older oncologists,” said Dr. Loehrer. “Looking to the future, I’d like to see this as a model for a career in global oncology for physicians. I’m continually blown away by the interest in young people wanting to be involved in global care. They want to get back to the basics of helping others. That’s the sanctity of life – what I believe medicine is all about,” said Dr. Loehrer. He added that 70 percent of the new cancers developing in the world will be coming from low- to middle-income countries, which are ill-equipped to deal with non-communicable diseases.
Thoughts of global care take his mind to possibilities and connections.
Three decades ago Dr. Loehrer founded the Hoosier Oncology Group, now known as the Hoosier Cancer Research Network, and the administrative arm of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium. A network of 130 academic and community institutions are part of the Consortium and are dedicated to connecting clinical research with patient treatments.
“I like the notion of bringing together a bunch of smart people where good things happen. When we consider a sustainable program for global healthcare it underscores the notion that cancer doesn’t just hit Americans,” said Dr. Loehrer.
And what about a cure for cancer?
“We have a cure,” said Dr. Loehrer. “Part of it is a misunderstanding that that there isn’t just a cancer; there are hundreds of different kinds of cancer. In my short professional lifetime I’ve been a personal witness to the cure of testicular cancer. Today, we have seen progress with just about every other cancer that was seen as devastating years ago. We are helping people live longer and have more productive lives. One by one we are finding out the mechanisms of individual cancers and working with those mechanisms to make a difference. There will never be a single cure for cancer but I promise you we will have many new cures over the next decade or so. We are now able to look a the cause behind cancer and these are the bread crumbs are that will lead us into new and exciting research directions.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.