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$14 million gift to create program focused on symptom management, mental and spiritual health of cancer patients


INDIANAPOLIS — A $14 million gift to Indiana University School of Medicine will transform cancer care in Indiana by serving as the catalyst to build a comprehensive approach that helps patients and their families manage the symptoms, pain and stress that often accompany a cancer diagnosis.

The gift from the Walther Cancer Foundation will create a supportive oncology program that goes beyond standard therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and seeks to care for a patient’s overall physical, mental and spiritual well-being. The program will be named the Walther Supportive Oncology Program in recognition of the foundation’s generosity.

It is believed to be the largest gift in the country to support a program of this kind. As part of For All: The Indiana University Bicentennial Campaign, the gift will receive matching funds from Indiana University, dramatically increasing the depth and breadth of what researchers, physicians and other caregivers are able to accomplish.

“More than 35,000 Hoosiers are diagnosed with cancer each year, and the disease affects each of them in complex and unique ways,” said IU President Michael A. McRobbie. “This magnificent gift will dramatically improve the lives of these individuals and their families and have far-reaching impacts beyond Indiana by enabling IU faculty experts to build a supportive oncology program that others will emulate. We are extremely grateful to the Walther Cancer Foundation for its remarkable generosity and continued support for the innovative teaching, research and clinical care that is a hallmark of our acclaimed School of Medicine.”

The Walther Supportive Oncology Program will be developed in partnership with Indiana University Health, the state’s leading academic hospital system and one of the largest in the United States. It is also intended to influence care for cancer patients and their families throughout Indiana and the country by providing expertise and best-practices for other health systems to model, with particular attention to the underserved in our communities.

The gift from Walther is establishing five endowed faculty positions that will enable IU School of Medicine to hire a nationally recognized leader in the field of supportive oncology to direct the program; a senior leader in psychiatry or psychology who focuses on individuals with cancer; and at least three other faculty experts in related disciplines. As part of the program, IU Health and IU School of Medicine will invest in additional staff to complement existing services.

“The Walther Cancer Foundation is pleased to have this unique opportunity to build a comprehensive supportive oncology program in partnership with IU Simon Cancer Center and IU Health,” said Thomas W. Grein, president and chief executive officer of Walther Cancer Foundation. “We are committed to developing a program that offers a broad range of services to meet the needs of cancer patients and their families.”

Creating a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary program

Supportive oncology is related to palliative care, a growing discipline that provides extra layers of support for patients with serious illnesses. While many people associate palliative care with end-of-life care, it is intended to support patients during all phases of illness beginning at the point of diagnosis and in tandem with therapies designed to cure or improve symptoms, and extends into survivorship.

Examples of services and expertise that will be available include:

  • Pain management
  • Management of symptoms such as nausea, fatigue and neuropathy
  • Psychological and psychiatric services, which are critically important for cancer patients who frequently experience depression, pain and anxiety
  • Spiritual care
  • Assistance navigating financial concerns, transportation issues and at-home support
  • Complementary services such as nutrition assistance, smoking cessation and other types of behavior modification
  • Systematic communication about patients’ values and preferences

While many of these services currently exist, they are typically offered in piecemeal fashion. A comprehensive, team-based supportive oncology program aims to assess patients’ needs throughout their cancer treatment and integrate services as part of routine cancer care. Importantly, these services will be embedded in cancer clinics or closely coordinated with the oncology team, preventing patients from having to juggle multiple appointments at different times.

Improving care through research and education

The Walther Supportive Oncology Program will also place a heavy emphasis on research in areas such as physician-patient communication, care coordination, symptom management and the long-term effects of cancer on survivors. This includes laboratory research to predict which patients will suffer side effects to specific therapies and how to mediate them, and to discover treatments that are less toxic.

The program will also include an educational component to train the next generation of clinical leaders in supportive oncology.

“Through research and innovation, we will develop a supportive oncology program that will be a model for the nation,” said Jay L. Hess, MD, PhD, MHSA, IU’s vice president for university clinical affairs and dean of IU School of Medicine. “Just as we are continuing to advance cancer treatments by personalizing therapies, we must reimagine the way care is delivered so we are able to tailor support services for each patient and family. We will bring to bear existing resources, recruit some of the best minds in the field, and make this vision a reality for cancer patients.”

While supportive oncology and palliative care are designed to improve quality of life, they also can reduce burdensome and costly events such as admissions to the intensive care unit, hospital admissions and trips to the emergency room because symptoms and complications are better managed up front. They also decrease the likelihood of a patient receiving chemotherapy in the last two weeks of life, when it is less likely to have a medical benefit and can cause undue pain and suffering.

Thus, supportive oncology and palliative care are key components of high value oncology care.

“The impact of this gift will be profound — broadening the ability of IU Health to provide whole-person care for patients and families, beginning at the Academic Health Center in Indianapolis and expanding to the IU Health statewide system,” said Ryan Nagy, MD, president of IU Health University and Methodist hospitals.

About the Walther Cancer Foundation

The Walther Cancer Foundation is named for the late Joseph E. Walther, MD, a 1936 graduate of IU School of Medicine and the founder of the former not-for-profit Winona Memorial Hospital. After the death of his beloved wife, Mary Margaret, from colon cancer, Dr. Walther devoted his life and work to funding cancer research. In 1985, Dr. Walther sold Winona Memorial Hospital and established the Walther Cancer Institute, a medical research organization. In 2007, the institute merged into the Walther Cancer Foundation, an independent, private grant-making institution.

In addition to investing in basic research, the foundation supports research programs that test new therapies and focus on human behaviors as well as ways patients and their families respond to a diagnosis of cancer.

This gift from the Walther Cancer Foundation counts toward For All: The Indiana University Bicentennial Campaign. The $3 billion campaign is taking place on all IU-administered campuses including IU Bloomington, IUPUI, IU Kokomo, IU Northwest, IU South Bend and IU Southeast. The campaign will conclude in June 2020 to coincide with IU’s bicentennial year celebration. To learn more about the campaign, its impact and how to participate, please visit