There was a time when Arkansans in need of cutting-edge cancer treatment had no choice but to leave the state to find it.
That is no longer the case, and Dr. Kent Westbrook is one of the reasons why.
Today, cancer patients can stay home to receive some of the nation’s best treatment at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute on the campus of UAMS.
The road to improving cancer treatment in Arkansas began in 1971, when Westbrook, of Clarksville, was serving in the Surgical Oncology Fellowship Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
There he encountered fellow Arkansas College of Medicine graduate Dr. James Y. Suen, also a fellow Arkansan.
The two discovered a shared dream for establishing a cancer center in their home state.
Both returned as faculty members to their alma mater (later to become UAMS) and worked to establish and expand the cancer program there.
Years Westbrook served as founding director of what became the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute
Year Westbrook graduated from the University of Arkansas College of Medicine
Square feet in the 12-story institute expansion opened in 2010
Westbrook rose to full professor in 1979 while establishing himself as a leader in the cancer community. His board memberships included the Arkansas Division of the American Cancer Society and he was an early force behind CARTI, the state’s first radiation therapy provider.
It came together in 1984 when UAMS Chancellor Harry Ward designated the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, later renamed in honor of Rockefeller, and named Westbrook founding director.
Westbrook threw himself into fundraising, organizing cancer programs, helping design the facility and even going door to door with board members to spread the news of the center.
Westbrook recruited faculty and developed a multidisciplinary approach to cancer management, forming or helping to form neck, melanoma and breast cancer programs.
The facility rose to state and national prominence, and Westbrook carried a number of titles at UAMS including chief of the division of surgical oncology, distinguished college of medicine professor and chairman of the department of dermatology.
Westbrook, 77, still sees patients, and despite all of his honors and accolades, he prefers to focus on patients.
He recalled a medical school graduation where he met a mother and her daughter. The daughter, a graduating doctor, was a woman he had delivered as a baby while serving his internship 25 years earlier.
“This experience made me realize the importance of UAMS to the community and to the state,” Westbrook said. “Here was a woman that had been taken care of because she had no money. Here was a young woman who was now a doctor who had gone through our training program. The UAMS had provided care, an educational opportunity, and now had produced a doctor to go out in our state. I was humbled by being involved in this experience.”
“Basically, when one becomes a doctor, it’s a commitment for a lifetime. I never had any reason to consider any other occupation on a full-time basis.”
— Kent Westbrook
♥ In 2015 Westbrook was the first recipient of the Kent C. Westbrook M.D. Chair in Surgical Oncology, established with a $1 million donation in his honor by James and Mary East.