July 27, 2018

Healing and hope for cancer patients

July is Sarcoma Awareness Month, and Northwest Permanente physician Dr. Philip Wirganowicz, MD, is giving new hope to cancer patients with sophisticated treatments for this rare form of cancer.

When a teen-aged Philip Wirganowicz read about the first heart transplant from baboon to human, he knew he wanted to be a physician. In medical school, however, it wasn’t cardiology he found himself drawn to but orthopedic surgery — and to the subspecialty of orthopedic oncology, the surgical component of treating sarcomas.

He admired the work of one of his teachers, a leader in this area, Jeff Eckardt, MD, who in 1980 established the Musculoskeletal Oncology Service at UCLA. Eventually, Dr. Wirganowicz received a fellowship to train with Dr. Eckardt — and he’s been working in the area of orthopedic oncology ever since.

After training, Dr. Wirganowicz moved to Philadelphia and served as an academic surgeon and member of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. A Northern California native, he returned to his home state in 2000 and worked to develop a Musculoskeletal Oncology Service in Oakland for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

In 2013, he brought his expertise to Northwest Permanente, P.C., and set about establishing a similar program here. Today, as the task force leader for sarcomas, he continues to lead work in this area.

Dr. Phil — as he’s affectionately known by patients and colleagues alike — is trained to surgically remove sarcomas, which are rare tumors that grow either in soft tissue or in bone. Surgery usually involves resection, or removal, of the affected area, followed by reconstruction to maximize extremity function. The reconstruction can involve bone transplants, metallic implants and joint replacements, and bone grafting.

“Historically, these tumors would be cause for amputation,” he said, “but that is no longer true.” The increased sophistication of treatment options like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy mean that most patients can safely undergo limb-sparing procedures.

Although there are circumstances under which a patient cannot be cured, Dr. Wirganowicz believes that every patient can be helped. While he acknowledges that cancer care can be discouraging when patients succumb to their disease, Dr. Wirganowicz says he gains strength from the patients he can help or cure.

Pediatricians and primary-care physicians, as well as general surgeons, refer their patients to Dr. Wirganowicz when an X-ray or examination has revealed the presence of a tumor. If surgery is required, he takes the lead, collaborating with radiation and medical oncologists, radiologists and other specialists.

While he’s foremost devoted to his work, Dr. Wirganowicz also enjoys bicycling — in fact, he bike-commutes to Sunnybrook Medical Office in Clackamas, Oregon from his home in Vancouver, Washington. He has coached teen cyclists and is helping to establish a high-school mountain-bike league in the Northwest this year as part of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.

“I take my job seriously,” he says, grinning. “My life, not so much.”

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente Northwest at kp.org/cancer/northwest.