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UNM Cancer Center keeps moving forward despite COVID challenges

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Even in a difficult year, the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center has continued to expand programs for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, according to its director.

Cheryl Willman

During a virtual event hosted by the Economic Forum of Albuquerque Wednesday, center director and CEO Cheryl Willman said the organization has been able to keep its research and clinical operations open this year despite the pandemic, and has made headway on efforts to reduce treatment gaps for Hispanic and Indigenous New Mexico residents.

Willman said the spread of the virus has had a negative impact on the number of people able to get screened for cancer in New Mexico and across. When the virus began to spread in New Mexico earlier this year, state leaders eliminated elective surgeries to ensure there was space to handle the flow of sick patients. As a result, Willman said the New Mexico Tumor Registry reported a 50% reduction in the reporting of new cancer diagnoses in the state from April to September, a sign that cancer is likely going undetected.

“The 50% reduction … isn’t because those cancers aren’t occurring. We believe they are,” Willman said. “It’s just that patients are not reporting for screening.”

With that in mind, Willman stressed the importance of social distancing and wearing a mask to limit the spread of the virus.

“I don’t think mask wearing is political, it’s really an act of love,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Willman said the center has had successes as well. She highlighted a handful of research breakthroughs that have come out of the center in recent years, including development of new immunotherapies for melanoma, colorectal and ovarian cancer.

Willman added that the cancer center is moving forward on a $28 million expansion to its Albuquerque campus.

“We’re really excited about bringing this essential project to New Mexico,” she said.

Willman said the center also has focused on expanding access to parts of the state with fewer resources. She said the center is working to reduce eligibility barriers for New Mexicans looking to participate in clinical trials, and is collaborating with UNM’s Project ECHO to bring cancer treatments into rural communities.

Willman said the center is also working with Native American communities in New Mexico to sequence cancer genes more effectively, working to combat disproportionately low cancer survival rates in those communities.


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