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Virginia Cancer Specialists Celebrates 50 Years of Progress and Expert Care in Northern Virginia

Virginia Cancer Specialists Practice Blog

May 01, 2023
Virginia Cancer Specialists » VCS Practice News » Blog Post » Virginia Cancer Specialists Celebrates 50 Years of Progress and Expert Care in Northern Virginia

 

“At Virginia Cancer Specialists, we have a world-class treatment team committed to personalized care,” said practice president Dr. Dipti Patel-Donnelly. “For the past 50 years, we have grown within our community to provide quality leading-edge care. We are excited to continue our journey of growth to meet the needs of our patients in the Northern Virginia region and beyond.”

We recently had our 50th anniversary open house celebration for our physicians and our referring physicians.

Virginia Cancer Specialists Celebrates 50 Years of Progress and Expert Care in Northern Virginia

Today, Virginia Cancer Specialists is the largest comprehensive private cancer practice in Northern Virginia. In 1972, Virginia Cancer Specialists founder Dr. Arthur Kales had just finished his medical training and was beginning his hematology practice at Fairfax Hospital.

“As far as I’m concerned, the practice started when I came to Fairfax and started practicing medicine,” said Dr. Kales. “From the beginning, my focus was always making sure every patient received the very best treatment. That’s always been the focus of the practice.”

After two years at Fairfax Hospital, Dr. Kales left to set up practice in his own office. The first office, a 1500 square foot space in the Town and Country Building on Route 50.  Oncology as a field was in its early stages with only a few available treatments, but as the treatments developed and options for patients grew, so did the practice. Over the next two decades, physicians were added to the practice as demand grew and the practice became busier. Eventually, the practice moved to a larger office to better accommodate patients.

“Cancer was a very common disease for all of those years, there just were not many treatment options available,” said Dr. Kales. “The need was there. The treatments were not. When treatments became available, we grew to meet that need the best we could for our patients.”

The ‘90s: Growing to Meet the Community’s Needs

“The important thing to remember is where oncology wasn’t in the ‘90s,” said Nicholas Robert, MD. “Oncology was relatively primitive. When I was a resident in the 70s, leukemia was tough to treat.  There were limited treatment options and blood banking was in its infancy.

Dr. Robert was the fifth physician to join Virginia Cancer Specialists in 1991. He recalls joining a practice on the cusp of growth, ready to take advantage of new opportunities to better serve patients.

“Virginia Cancer Specialists went on the journey of discovery that occurred in oncology,” Dr. Robert said. “What was neat was the group we had, and the group we managed to grow—we had really talented, smart people who worked really hard to provide the opportunity for our community to get first-class care.”

Linda Anderson joined Virginia Cancer Specialists in 1996 and retired in 2021 as executive director of the practice and recalls a similar period of growth.

“When I joined, we didn’t have a website,” Anderson said. “We mostly took word-of-mouth referrals. We had 6 physicians in one office. And the hospital did not have an oncology program, we were the oncology program. Our physicians were incredibly busy, and there still weren’t many drugs to give patients. It was a different time.”

In 1996, the practice joined the US Oncology Network, which created access to managed care services and other resources for the practice to established new standards of care.

“We always had extremely high standards,” said Anderson. “We had a need for growth, and a lot of physicians who wanted to join the practice. But not everyone was just let into the practice. I think that kept standards high because we were asking for a certain level of care.”

Gregory Orloff, MD, joined the practice in 1995 as the sixth physician, just as the practice began to expand again—this time, physically.

“In our first office on Woodburn Road, we had standing room in the hallway,” said. Dr. Orloff. “When we moved just up the street to 3289 Woodburn Road, we were able to build out sufficient space, which allowed us to add more physicians and programs including full pharmacy services and infusion areas.”

In the next decade, the practice began to grow geographically as well, expanding the ability to provide care for patients all over Northern Virginia with locations across the region.

Staying on the Forefront of Leading-Edge Treatment

“When you look at where we were in 1996, we were at the top of the field, and we didn’t really have competition,” said Dr. Orloff. “Oncology grew, so we grew. That differentiated the practice.”

An instrumental part of that growth, Orloff says, was the addition of new programs that gave patients access to care otherwise not available in the community.

Research

Alexander Spira, MD, PhD. FACP, is the co-director of the Virginia Cancer Specialists Research Institute. He is also the director of the thoracic and Phase I program and a clinical assistant professor at John Hopkins. Dr. Spira has a special interest in thoracic oncology and serves as Co-Chair of the US Oncology Thoracic Oncology Research Program. Mitul Gandhi, MD, also serves as Virginia Cancer Specialists Research Co-Director, and is a physician at NEXT – Virginia, along with M. Adham Salkeni, MD, who specializes in clinical research.

“Virginia Cancer Specialists Research Institute, along with its partnership with NEXT-Virginia, forms the largest and best clinical oncology trial facility in the Mid-Atlantic Region,” Dr. Spira said. “This collaboration expands its offerings in developmental therapeutics to patients that are unavailable elsewhere.”

Dr. Nicholas Robert launched the program in 1997 with a trial patient who received a chemotherapy trial. The first activated trial began in July of that year and focused on non-small cell lung cancer. The program began with 3 staff members. In 2013, the program began to offer Phase 1 clinical trials. In 2022, Virginia Cancer Specialists expanded the program through a partnership with NEXT Virginia.

Phase I oncology trials are an important step in the drug development process. Trial participation enables patients to actively engage in their medical care, provides patients with access to novel treatments not yet commercially available, and it helps future patients on the path to new, transformative discoveries. Clinical research trials are conducted according to strict scientific and ethical principles, and groups of experts at the national and local levels approve research studies before they begin.

“When it comes to clinical trials, it takes a village,” said Dr. Robert. “It’s impressive to think some of this work is being done at Virginia Cancer Specialists. We’re making some real contributions, and we’re doing this all in the community. It’s first-class care with first class research opportunities.”

Today Research:

Employs 70 staff members, including a finance team and pharmacy staff, with an additional 35 staff members through a partnership with NEXT Virginia

  • Has registered over 3400 patients in clinical trials since its inception in 1997
  • Has 190 actively occurring clinical trials, including Phase I studies
  • Has enrolled 100 patients in trials through the partnership with NEXT Virginia
  • Is considered the most comprehensive trial program in the Mid-Atlantic
  • Has over 200 publications at major medical meetings

Radiation

“One of the biggest steps forward in the evolution of practice was the decision to develop a radiation oncology program within the practice,” said Dr. Orloff.

Virginia Cancer Specialists began offering radiation therapy in 2012. Gregory Sibley, MD, an expert in multidisciplinary cancer treatment and state-of-the-art radiation treatment planning techniques joined Virginia Cancer Specialists. Within the US Oncology, Dr. Sibley is a member of the Executive Committee for Radiation Oncology and Vice-Chair for the Technology Committee.

“One of the benefits of the US Oncology Network was that they were able to help us develop programs like radiation therapy,” said Anderson. “We were so lucky to hire Dr. Sibley, because he was known in the area as a great physician with a great reputation.”

Today, the radiation therapy has grown to include fellow Radiation Oncologist Harold C. Agbahiwe, MD. The program at Virginia Cancer Specialists is accredited by the American Society for Radiation Oncology Accreditation Program for Excellence and offers advanced treatment options that include intensity modulated radiotherapy, image-guided radiation therapy, and high dose rate brachytherapy.

Surgery

Dr. Felasfa Wodajo, a leading musculoskeletal tumor surgeon in Northern Virginia, joined Virginia Cancer Specialists in 2015. Prior to joining the practice, Dr. Wodajo had seen patients as a part of orthopedic groups, and with hospitals. Joining, a medical oncology practice wasn’t on his radar when he began sharing office space at Virginia Cancer Specialists.

“It wasn’t even a thought at first—why would I join a medical oncology practice?” said Dr. Wodajo. “After a week or two with VCS, I realized it made perfect sense. It was easily the best environment I’d been in. All the resources I needed were right there, and the practice was eager to get them, which was the best for my patients.”

The integrated infrastructure of Virginia Cancer Specialists easily welcomed surgical programs with its ability to provide patient care at a high level of efficiency. In the following years, more surgeons joined the practice as the program grew. Today, Virginia Cancer Specialists offers breast cancer surgery, thoracic and lung cancer surgery, and musculoskeletal surgery. Surgeons work closely with the practice’s medical and radiation oncologists to provide coordinated treatment for multidisciplinary care.

“You have basically everything under one roof,” said Dr. Wodajo. “Obviously we have access to chemotherapy, radiation, oncology, but it’s also all the nuts and bolts it takes to run a practice. As a surgeon, I just need to come in and focus on what I need to focus on.”

“The team approach sets the surgical program apart”, said Dr. Stephanie Akbari, breast surgeon. She notes that something the practice has been able to leverage very well is care coordination, which leads to a compressed timeline of care and lower wait times. Patients are often able to be seen on the same day by multiple providers. As a surgeon, she appreciates the support of the team.

“It’s not just the doctor, it’s the whole support staff,” said Dr. Akbari. “It’s the surgeon, the nurse navigator, the scheduler, the medical assistant, the front desk person, the genetic counselor, the nurse practitioner. It’s 360 degrees of care, including social workers and dietitians. Our whole team is amazing, and really geared toward providing top-notch care.”

Today, Virginia Cancer Specialists, has a grown to include more surgical options for patients, comprising of four Breast Surgeons, which include Stephanie Akbari, MD, FACS, Elizabeth Feldman, MD, FACS, Hernan Vargas, MD, FACS and its newest Breast Surgeon David Weintritt, MD, FACS. In addition, Virginia Cancer Specialists has a Musculoskeletal Tumor Surgeon (Dr. Felasfa Wodajo) and a Thoracic Surgeon Sandeep J. Khandhar, MD, FACS.

Genetics

Prior to 2010, physicians at Virginia Cancer Specialists would refer patients to outside genetic counselors for testing, but many patients wouldn’t follow up, or their insurance would not cover the counseling. Medical oncologist Patricia Rodriguez, MD, saw a need to provide the service in the practice.

“I took a course in genetic counseling, so I would understand what we needed to provide our patients,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “We started with seeing patients within the practice to encourage follow up.”

In 2011, the Hereditary Risk Assessment Program, which provides patients with information about their genetic cancer risk, became one of the first programs of its kind integrated into a comprehensive oncology care program in Northern Virginia. Today, the program employs three genetic counselors, in addition to an integrated team of oncologists, nurse practitioners and nurse specialists, who have all received special training related to inherited cancers.

Palliative Care

There’s been an evolution in palliative care from mostly inpatient programs taking care of seriously sick patients to fully developed programs improving quality of life,” said Loren Friedman, MD. “Virginia Cancer Specialists saw a need to integrate that care.”

Dr. Friedman joined Virginia Cancer Specialists in 2014 with enthusiastic support from the practice’s clinicians. Prior to beginning the program at Virginia Cancer Specialists, Dr. Friedman had been providing impatient palliative care in hospitals for a decade.

“I think in that decade where I was providing care in the hospital, the oncology practices were able to see what palliative care could do for the patients and for the oncologists,” said Dr. Friedman. “Palliative care provides pain management and support for the patient on a level that’s often outside the oncology skill set.”

Within two years, the program demand grew, and a second physician was hired, in addition to social workers. Later, a nurse coordinator joined the staff. Today, the program has a network of local social workers, and outreach groups promoting palliative care to patients in need.

Looking Toward the Future

As Virginia Cancer Specialists celebrates 50 years of patient-centered care, the practice’s sights are set on continuing to grow as oncology treatments and research evolves in order to meet the needs of patients.

“We’re looking forward with excellence of care in mind,” said current executive director Elise Sullivan. “Holding up our standards has always been important, and it will continue to remain important.”

Her predecessor agrees, stating confidence in the practice’s ability to continue to provide first-class care.

“I hope they will continue to grow, and grow wisely,” said Linda Anderson. “If you give good care, the rest will come.”

“At Virginia Cancer Specialists, we have a world-class treatment team committed to personalized care,” said practice president Dr. Dipti Patel-Donnelly. “For the past 50 years, we have grown within our community to provide quality leading-edge care. We are excited to continue our journey of growth to meet the needs of our patients in the Northern Virginia region and beyond.”