Faces of Cancer: Tri-City doctor has cancer on his mind

By Andy Perdue, Tri-City HeraldOctober 30, 2011 

Dr. Thomas Rado never stops thinking about cancer. He spends long hours at Columbia Basin Hematology & Oncology in Kennewick helping 12 to 14 patients per day and checking their treatments. When he isn't with a patient, he is overseeing the burgeoning research department he has built at CBHO.

When he gets home from work, he and his wife, Mitra -- a nurse practitioner at CBHO -- talk late into the evening about how to help someone stricken with cancer, and they start again at the breakfast table. At the grocery store, at a restaurant, on an airplane, all he thinks about is cancer.

"It doesn't leave my mind for very long," he said. "Whatever creativity I can bring to bear, maybe it will make it a little better."

And Rado has a lot to think about. Since being recruited to the Tri-Cities in 1995, nearly 14,000 patients have come through his door to be treated by him or one of his associates. (Full disclosure: This writer was successfully treated by Rado three years ago for stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma.)

Rado was born in Buenos Aires. His parents fled their native Hungary during World War II and lived in Argentina for a short time before emigrating to the United States. He grew up in New York. In 1970, he earned a doctorate in biology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, then received his M.D. from the University of Arkansas in 1977 before completing his training in hematology and oncology at Yale.

Rado was a professor of oncology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham when he was recruited to come to Richland. At the time, one of the Tri-Cities' only oncologists had recently died after a heart attack, and the community was desperate. At the same time, Rado felt the pull to move from pure research to helping those with cancer.

"I was ready to make a move and was really delighted to come here," he said.

Ruben Sierra, an oncologist, had arrived a couple of years earlier, and the two quickly become friends and eventually began covering for each other on weekends.

"We realized we were very compatible," Rado said.

In 1998, the two combined their practices and created CBHO.

At about the same time, the Tri-Cities Cancer Center was hoping to add oncology services on site, so in September 1998, Sierra and Rado relocated to the cancer center. Sierra has since retired, and Rado now has three oncologists working with him at CBHO. While the practice primarily serves the Tri-Cities, it also draws patients from a 60-mile radius.

With the exception of pediatric cancers, which aren't treated at CBHO, Rado has seen just about every form of cancer imaginable, though he estimates two-thirds of his patients are battling breast cancer because that is what he focuses his expertise on.

While some might be disheartened by the thought of seeing so much fear and suffering at the hands of cancer, the development of a new generation of drugs in the past decade encourages Rado.

"The field is entering a golden age where major progress is going to be made," he said. "But it also becomes more complex."

To keep up with the daily onslaught of new information about cancer, CBHO launched a research program five years ago. Frankly, few thought it could be done in an area as remote as the Tri-Cities.

"Orville and Wilbur Wright were laughed at more than us, but not by much," Rado said with a grin. "I felt that if we were going to distinguish ourselves, we had to have a research program of our own."

They started with simple observational studies and slowly built it into larger clinical trials. Today, Rado employs four full-time researchers who handle new clinical trials, emerging drugs and different types of therapies.

"The research is important for our patients," he said. "But it's also really important to us because it forces us to remain on the edge."

Rado is 69, and the positive direction CBHO has taken the past few years finally has him thinking about retiring.

"I'm so buoyed by my young associates that I feel it will be possible for me to step back within a couple of years," he said. "I had a sense of responsibility because we have created something very good here, and I didn't want it to fall apart. These young people are so bright, intense and dedicated, they will carry it on in the best way. What has kept me going is the sense that I didn't want to leave a vacuum."

Instead, he will leave a legacy of bringing high-quality cancer care to the Tri-Cities.

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