South Charlotte

My doctor is a leader fighting ovarian cancer

Editor's note: This is another installment in Correspondent Katya Lezin's "Cancer journey," in which she chronicles her battle with ovarian cancer.

When I first met Dr. R. Wendell Naumann, 49, the gynecological oncologist to whom I was referred once I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he explained to me that he would be the doctor seeing me through my entire cancer ordeal.

He would perform the surgery - in my case, a laparoscopic hysterectomy - and oversee the chemotherapy and treatment that followed. It turns out that patient-centric approach is unique to gynecological oncology and is one of the things that drew Naumann to the field.

"Rather than handing the patient from doctor to doctor, the physicians center themselves around the patient and the care the patient receives is much less fragmented," Naumann said.

Naumann touts this centralized approach with leading to many of the advances that recently have been made with ovarian cancer.

The improvements in chemotherapy, especially the development of IP (intraperitoneal) chemo, in which a port is inserted in the abdomen so that the chemo drugs can be concentrated where the cancer is located, and the ability to do laparoscopic surgery have led to advances in both the length of time before the cancer comes back and the overall survival rate for ovarian cancer.

"People think of oncology as a depressing field," Naumann said. "But the vast majority of my patients do well and I cure them."

Naumann initially went to medical school, at the University of Alabama Birmingham, with hopes of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, but he switched to gynecological oncology because "the divorce rate in the surgery department was over 100 percent."

He met his wife, Jan Naumann, an OBGYN in Charlotte, while both were residents and they married in 1991. Naumann switched to oncology at an exciting time in the field, when both the medical profession and the country had declared war on cancer, leading to both increased funding and the discovery of new chemotherapy drugs.

The advances in his field have been exhilarating both medically and personally.

"The side effects from the chemo drugs we used to administer were so horrific that patients couldn't finish the chemo regimen," Naumann said.

Great strides have been made in minimizing the side effects and finding more palatable drugs that are equally effective in killing the cancer cells, both of which I can personally vouch. I was able to pretty much live my life while undergoing the five months of chemo that my treatment entailed.

But Naumann, who says "it is very rewarding to see patients do well," notes that the survival rate for ovarian cancer is still significantly lower than other cancers because it is often detected late.

"By the time symptoms appear, it is often Stage 3 or 4."

This low survival rate means that the numbers of survivors - who can advocate for more research and attention - are politically small in number.

Naumann finds the short shrift ovarian cancer receives - both in research dollars and in political clout - extremely frustrating.

"Research cures cancer," Naumann said. "Clinical trials are needed to develop new drugs, but the funding of ovarian cancer is significantly less than that of other cancers."

Another frustration of Naumann's, and one he hopes people will educate themselves about and advocate for legislative intervention, is the recent shortage of drugs used to combat the recurrence of ovarian cancer.

"There are drugs that significantly change the cure rate for cancer, "and our system does not ensure that there is an effective supply of them," Naumann said.

Naumann recently explained how dire the drug shortage situation is on CNN's "Sanjay Gupta MD."

Naumann does not blame the drug companies, for whom the profit margin on producing some of these drugs is extremely small, but he believes there should be a legislative requirement that "these drugs be stockpiled and that the companies who make them guarantee a supply of them."

In addition to deriving tremendous satisfaction from seeing his patients do well, Naumann also enjoys teaching and conducting research as part of the Gynecologic Oncology Group, a cooperative group of gynecological oncologists.

He is always engaged in research and has become an expert in his field.

"I'm the person they call when they don't know what to do," Naumann said. "And that challenges me to be my best."