IU-Simon Cancer Center combines research with care for cancer patients

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - When 57-year-old Avon teacher Ralph Hartnagel got his blood test results in November 2016, he was shocked.

His PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) number was around 25. When doctors see a number above 4, it generally triggers further investigation. When he had it checked again in December, Ralph's PSA was up to 40.

Other tests confirmed that he had prostate cancer, and that the cancer was spreading. He needed treatment and he needed to get started sooner rather than later.

Hartnagel teaches business at Avon High School, but he's also a baseball and tennis coach. He's not the kind of guy to sit and wait for things to get better. He's also not the kind of guy who is willing to not play a strong role in his care. He was looking for a medical team that would include him in all aspects of his care.

His research led him to the IU-Simon Cancer Center and prostate cancer specialist Dr. Roberto Pili.

"I feel like he's a teammate," he said. "I feel like Dr. Koch is a teammate, Star, my nurse, is a teammate, Kevin, who did my last infusion, teammate. We're all in this together."

There are a number of places that cancer patients can choose for treatment, but the Simon Cancer Center is the only place in Indiana that is also a cancer research center. It started with a handful of researchers in 1992 and has over 200 today. There are only 69 centers in the country that do both - and it means that the work they do in the lab can be more easily transferred to patient care.

It's a setup that fits Hartnagel's view of the world.

"Being a teacher, I loved the educational aspect of it, so I loved that IU has that foundation in education and research that tied to IU Health so they can work together to help solve the problems for me and other people like me," Hartnagel said.

The Simon Cancer Center has worked with thousands of people like Ralph in the last 25 years, with comprehensive treatment plans. Ralph has had five of six rounds of chemotherapy, but he is also following a strict diet recommended by Dr. Pili - no red meat, no dairy, and a glass of red wine every other day.

It's not just a notion. Dr. Pili's studies have shown that the enzymes in the food work with the medicine to make it more effective.

"The ancient physician Hippocrates used to write 'Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food'," he said, "and now we're appreciating the importance of nutrition."

Ralph has a way to go in his treatment, but he is optimistic that he and his medical team are on the right track. He has tolerated the first five rounds of chemotherapy well; he still has most of his hair and he's gaining, rather than losing, weight. He says that eating better is making him feel better (although he misses the occasional slice of pizza that's now off-limits due to the cheese).

This approach to care works for him and for others across the Midwest.

"You know, when I'm in the infusion room," he said, "I see people who come in from Cincinnati and elsewhere to come to this hospital - this research center - so, they know it's a good place to be."

At any given time, the IU-Simon Cancer Center has more than 600 active clinical trials underway that could change the way doctors treat cancer in the future.

To learn more about the IU-Simon Cancer Center, visit their website.