DES MOINES, Iowa (WHO) – Dr. Tom Buroker has treated thousands of cancer patients in Iowa. In more than four decades, the way he does it, has changed dramatically.

“You can just read their face,” Dr. Buroker explained. “You get pretty good at reading faces and people are scared to death. The word cancer scares everybody.”

Dr. Buroker knows treating the disease is as much about treating the person.

“You can always give them hope, you can always be there, you can always support them,” Dr. Buroker said.

After more than 40 years, Dr. Buroker is still giving patients hope. When he came to Des Moines back in 1978, he was one of only three oncologists in the state.

“Bob Shreck and I started in 1981,” Buroker explained. “And then shortly thereafter, Dr. Roscoe Morton and Dr. Mark Westberg; for a long time, it was just the four of us.”

Today there are up to 20 physicians. Mission Cancer + Blood serves much of Central Iowa, as well as communities all over the state.

“And so we try to service those small town communities,” Dr. Buroker said. “For a lot of those people, it’s a hardship for them to come up. Everything we can do to treat their cancer in the small community, we do that.”

Dr. Buroker says through the years, cancer treatment has changed dramatically.

“Starting this 40 years ago, we just had a handful of drugs that we could use for cancer patients,” Dr. Buroker recalls. “And now this has just expanded. The ability to treat a lot of patients who were never able to be treated in the past and treat them successfully continues to grow.”

Also is growing is the number of people who will need cancer treatment. A report from the Iowa Cancer Registry shows more than 20,000 Iowans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2023. Breast cancer will be the most prevalent, affecting almost 3,000. 

Dr. Buroker knows many of those Iowans will come to Mission for treatment, but each person’s care plan will look different. 

“Everyone wants to get to a cure, but you want to do it in a way that you hope does the best for the patient in their life,” Dr. Buroker said. 

He not only looks at the type, size, and spread of the disease; but also considers the patient’s age.

“You take a 65-year-old woman who’s married and through having her children, she is not as concerned about ,obviously, further childbearing,” Dr. Buroker said. “And it may even influence her decision on what type of surgery to have, whether she wants to do a lumpectomy and save the breast and radiation versus she wants to have a mastectomy.”

Compare that to my treatment as a 28-year-old who still wants the possibility of having children. Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. Not to mention taking a hormone therapy drug for at least the next five years.

Treating cancer isn’t easy, but Dr. Buroker says it’s better than it was.

“If you look at where we’ve come to now, it’s just an exponential growth,” Dr. Buroker said. “It’s a tremendous, tremendous improvement. Not only in the treatment, but the ability to deal with side effects of the treatment that the patients have.”

Dr. Buroker is thankful for that. His patients are thankful for him.

“Being able to see people when all their guards are down, that’s a privilege,” Dr. Buroker said. “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re not thinking about the car payment or the house payment it’s like, am I going to be alive? And so, you really see people when they’re most vulnerable, so that’s a privilege.”

That privilege is what keeps Dr. Buroker going. He’s cared for cancer patients for more than half his life and has no plans of slowing down.