As a native Kentuckian, Dr. John van Nagell has always appreciated the impact UK has in the Commonwealth.
Van Nagell earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University and his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but his goal was to return to Kentucky to practice medicine.
“I always wanted to come home,” van Nagell said. “And when it came time for me to decide where I wanted to undergo further training, the University of Kentucky had just opened an outstanding new medical center.”
Specializing in gynecologic oncology – the diagnosis, research and treatment of women’s cancers – van Nagell joined UK HealthCare as a resident in 1967, about 16 years before the creation of the UK Markey Cancer Center. He’s spent his career at UK treating patients and mentoring young doctors, but his lasting legacy will likely be his research.
In 1987, van Nagell started Markey’s Ovarian Cancer Screening Program, an ongoing research endeavor that provides free ovarian cancer screenings by transvaginal ultrasound to women across Kentucky.
‘Committed as ever’
Now in its 30th year, the program has provided free screenings to more than 46,000 women and found 775 ovarian tumors and 103 malignancies. Screenings are provided to women over the age of 50 and to those over the age of 25 who have a family history of ovarian cancer.
“We’ve been able to detect ovarian cancer at an earlier stage in many women, rather than just waiting for symptoms to occur,” van Nagell said. “The survival rate of women in our program who have ovarian cancer is roughly double that of women who didn’t get screened.”
Although the use of transvaginal ultrasound as a screening method has been controversial – with critics suggesting it may lead to unnecessary surgeries – van Nagell emphasizes that newer technologies such as molecular genetic testing will help doctors identify at-risk women who could most benefit from screening. The research program has also taught physicians more about finding malignancies, van Nagell said.
“We now know, because of this screening program, that certain ovarian cysts are always benign,” he said. “What we’re saying is more research needs to be done, and we’re doing it. And if we can provide free screening along the way to an at-risk population, that’s beneficial.”
With 50 years of experience at UK under his belt, van Nagell says he remains “as committed as ever,” still dedicated to perfecting the work he began three decades ago for his patients.
“All you have to do is go back into the clinic and see one case after another of ladies coming in with advanced ovarian cancers who had no early symptoms, and by the time their symptoms developed, their disease was incurable,” he said. “And the most fulfilling part is just seeing women who didn’t realize something was wrong but had a potentially fatal disease, which we were able to detect through screening, successfully treat, and now they’re fine.”
Dr. van Nagell honored by his peers
Regularly cited as one of the “Best Doctors in America,” van Nagell recently received another major accolade from his peers. Earlier this month, he attended the 2017 Annual Meeting on Women’s Cancer in Baltimore, where he was presented with the Society of Gynecologic Oncology’s Distinguished Service Award. This award recognizes individuals who, over an extended period of time, display a continuous outstanding meritorious service in the field of gynecologic oncology.
“To be honored by your peers is very special,” van Nagell said. “And I believe that – at least in some small way – this validates what we have tried to do here, and that is to improve the early detection of a very serious disease. To me, it’s all about the lives of people who have been changed for the better by the screening program.”