A decade after thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Mason built his practice at the Cleveland Clinic, he has begun building a new multidisciplinary program at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
The progression has been invigorating for Mason, the center’s new chief of thoracic surgery and lung transplantation, as well as for the patients he now serves.
Mason is constructing the new thoracic surgery program – the first of its kind in Dallas – that will attract top specialists in pulmonology, radiology, pathology, oncology and surgery. These specialists will work together to improve patient care across Texas.
A major part of it will be a thoracic oncology department, which will include a new focus on pleural mesothelioma cancer.
“It’s almost like starting from scratch, bringing all the parts together,” Mason told Asbestos.com. “It’s exciting to build something like this from the ground floor, taking your experiences over time and putting them together to build the best possible program. I think patients will benefit greatly.”
Mason will be drawing from his years at the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He is taking the best ideas from each, while leaving behind those that didn’t work so well.
“Sometimes, starting from scratch is easier than changing what someone else had previously done,” he said. “It provides the opportunity to build a program the way you want it to be, pulling everyone together to provide multiple opinions and multiple sets of eyes. That can only help your patients.”
Building a Program at Baylor University Medical Center
Mason joined Baylor University Medical Center earlier this year as the chief of thoracic surgery and lung transplantation. He is entrusted with the job of adding to an already heralded health-care system, which includes more than 20 medical specialty centers.
“There were a lot of good people already here doing great work, but groups were working separately. There wasn’t a strong focus on thoracic surgery,” he said. “This was a chance to bring together a team of experts in various fields, draw them together with a cohesive plan, a unifying vision. We have taken the foundation of Baylor and built upon it.”
Included in that vision, will be the Chest Cancer Research and Treatment Center at Baylor, which will work with various thoracic malignancies. It also will be part of the well-established Sammons Cancer Center, which already is part of the Baylor family.
Mason carved his reputation in Cleveland as one of America’s leading thoracic surgeons. In his career, he has performed 54 different types of surgery, ranging from double-lung transplants to extrapleural pneumonectomies (EPP), the most aggressive treatment option for mesothelioma patients.
Despite his new administrative duties in building a program, he remains committed to his work as a thoracic surgeon with a focus on lung diseases like mesothelioma, which is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans yearly.
It is a rare, aggressive cancer caused primarily by exposure to toxic asbestos fibers. Although the use of asbestos has dropped dramatically in recent decades, Mason has seen the same trajectory in the number of cases. One reason is the typically long latency period (10-50 years) between exposure and diagnosis.
“Mesothelioma is a terrifying, yet fascinating disease,” he said. “I think [as a country] we’re peaking or may have just peaked in the number of cases. It’s not going away anytime soon.”
He expects the new thoracic surgery department at the Baylor University Medical Center to see close to 100 pleural mesothelioma cases, possibly more if it becomes a referral center for others around the state.
Evolving Philosophy on Treating Mesothelioma
Over the years, Mason’s philosophy of treating mesothelioma has evolved, which will be apparent to patients coming to see him in Dallas. The complexity of the disease and the lack of a definitive cure still prompt him to spend more time talking to a patient with mesothelioma than with most any other cancer.
“I still hope there will be a cure in my lifetime,” he said. “But you have to use the word ‘cure’ cautiously now. We haven’t seen any major ‘wows’ when it comes to new therapies yet. We’ve improved slowly – gotten a little better here and a little better there. One thing I’ve learned over the years has been better management of the disease and the importance of “quality of life.’ ”
Mason spends considerable time educating his patients about the disease. They talk about priorities, expectations and options. He asks questions, too, getting a better understanding of who each patient is, what their wishes are and how aggressive they want to be with treatment.
Mason still performs the aggressive EPP surgery (which removes the entire lung, the heart lining and part of the diaphragm), but he recommends it to fewer patients than before. He has seen too many in the past trade away quality of life for unrealistic hope, and get little in return.
“What a patient chooses to do is a very personal decision,” he said. “You educate as best as you can. We can help them make a decision. That’s where experience is important. You know what has worked in the past.”