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David Sugarbaker, M.D.

Dr. David Sugarbaker was one of the leading experts in mesothelioma, a rare cancer that has few physicians who specialize in its diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, he passed away on August 29, 2018. A pioneer in research and treatment, he built a renowned and comprehensive mesothelioma center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston before taking the top job at the Lung Institute at Baylor University’s College of Medicine in Houston. Dr. Sugarbaker made the move in order to do more for mesothelioma patients by sharing his expertise and the lessons he learned in Boston with another medical community.

Early Education and Career

Dr. Sugarbaker grew up in Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, in a big family with a father who worked as a surgeon specializing in cancer treatment. His older brothers went on to become surgeons, too, so it was fitting that he also decided to pursue a career in medicine, and specifically in surgery. Dr. Sugarbaker earned his undergraduate degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and went to medical school at Cornell University. He completed his residency programs and internships at several different prestigious universities, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Toronto General Hospital, and the University of Toronto’s Toronto Hospital for Sick Children.

Thoracic Surgery and Mesothelioma at Brigham and Women’s Hospital

His interest in thoracic surgery began during esophageal physiology research at the Harvard-Thorndyke Laboratory. Dr. Sugarbaker went on to become one of the leaders in the field, doing some of his most important work at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. While he developed an interest in thoracic surgery and specifically esophageal surgery early in his career, it was when he arrived in Boston that he became interested in mesothelioma in particular.

Dr. Sugarbaker saw patients who had worked in the Boston shipyards and suffered from mesothelioma as a result of workplace asbestos exposure. He recognized a great need for better diagnosis and treatment of this rare cancer and took it as a challenge to focus on mesothelioma. He spent 25 years of his career at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, founding the International Mesothelioma Program and making contributions to help improve the lives and the outcomes of patients.

Dr. Sugarbaker held several jobs during his career in Boston, including chief of thoracic surgery and executive vice-chair of the department of surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, chief of surgical services at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.

The Baylor College of Medicine Lung Institute

Dr. Sugarbaker then decided to leave Boston to run the Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Medical Center in Houston. He wanted a chance to build another program for innovative patient care and mesothelioma treatment, and to take what he learned in Boston and use it elsewhere to help more patients.

As a new director of the Lung Institute, Dr. Sugarbaker built a program that is multidisciplinary in its approach and that combines mesothelioma research with a forward-thinking clinical practice. He also brought his innovative approaches to treatment and surgery to the Baylor College of Medicine.

Clinical Research

Not just a surgeon treating patients with mesothelioma, Dr. Sugarbaker spent much of his career engaging in hands-on clinical research to help develop better ways of treating this cancer. The majority of his research focused on creating a tri-modal approach to treatment, using surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy to give patients the most comprehensive and aggressive treatment possible to slow or stop the growth of pleural mesothelioma tumors.

Dr. Sugarbaker was particularly well-known and regarded for his contributions to developing and refining the procedure called extrapleural pneumonectomy. This is an aggressive and radical type of surgery for pleural mesothelioma patients, in which an entire lung is removed, along with much of the pleural tissue, tissue from around the heart, lymph nodes, and parts of the diaphragm. While extrapleural pneumonectomy is offers a mesothelioma patient a chance to achieve remission, few surgeons have the skills to perform this procedure.

Thanks to his work in advancing this and other procedures, as well as improving and increasing the use of tri-modal treatment, Dr. Sugarbaker was responsible for improving survival rates in mesothelioma patients. He also worked on other research for treating mesothelioma, including tailoring chemotherapy drugs to individual patients and discovering genetic factors involved in the development and treatment of mesothelioma.

Additional Work and Honors

In addition to his work in research and with patients, Dr. Sugarbaker was a world-renowned lecturer and professor of surgery. He added to the body of knowledge about mesothelioma treatment and also brought a multi-disciplinary approach to caring for patients, making the process more individualized and more comfortable. By founding the International Mesothelioma Program he brought together social workers, counselors, palliative caregivers, and other professionals to improve the way mesothelioma patients are treated. He was the vice president of the Graham Education and Research Foundation, a member of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Network, and was frequently named a top U.S. doctor.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s long career working with mesothelioma patients changed everything about how this terrible disease is treated.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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