Increasing Survival Rates
Indiana native Dr. Jennifer Gnerlich has barely unpacked from her cross-country move to New Orleans, but she’s already shaking things up at LSU Healthcare Networks’ surgical oncology division (department of surgery). “The biggest thing for me is to think outside the box,” she says. “How can we expand an application and use it in different ways? How can we prevent cancer from spreading in the first place rather than just treating it at the end?”
To that end, Dr. Gnerlich is passionate about an innovative treatment approach for pancreatic cancer that switches up the typical timeline of surgically removing a tumor first followed by chemotherapy and radiation second. By administering chemo first, Dr. Gnerlich hopes to attack migrating tumor cells in the blood, effectively shutting down the possible spread of the disease to other parts of the body. “Those little cells will get you — the ones that take up shop in your liver or lung — not the big tumor,” she says. “Pancreatic surgery takes a lot out of a patient and has a high complication rate, which may delay a patient from getting chemotherapy. By giving the chemotherapy before surgery, the patient is more likely to tolerate the drugs and complete all of the treatments before surgery. Ultimately, this should help patients have the best chance at survival.”
As one of only a few board-certified surgical oncologists in the New Orleans area, Dr. Gnerlich looks forward to sharing her passion and expertise with local patients. One particular area of interest is Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC), a heated, highly concentrated type of chemotherapy that is delivered directly into the abdomen during surgery, hitting the cancer cells directly rather than via the bloodstream as with traditional chemotherapy. “For patients with certain types of cancer, I remove the tumor and then give them HIPEC for 90 minutes,” Dr. Gnerlich says. “It can really help increase the quantity and quality of life. HIPEC is usually reserved for those who are at a late stage in their disease.” Dr. Gnerlich plans to research whether applying HIPEC to certain cancers can be used in a more preventive fashion, before it becomes a late-stage diagnosis.
While Dr. Gnerlich is all about results, she stresses that her patients want to see her as a person first. “The human connection has to be there,” she says. “They don’t care that I’m board certified. They want to know that I understand where they’re coming from and what they value in life.” Establishing a doctor-patient rapport prompted her to change her pre-operative conversations with patients from a risks and benefits discussion to more about setting expectations. “Being truthful about post-operative pain, the months of fatigue following a large procedure, and the need to find a new baseline of normal after a cancer diagnosis became routine talk in my clinic room,” she says. “I realized that setting these expectations relieved their anxiety about what their life would look like once they had made it through the operation. I’m the last human contact they have before they go under anesthesia, the final reassurance of someone they put their trust into when they no longer have control. It’s a responsibility and an honor.”
On her biggest inspiration: “I volunteered at the Ronald McDonald house during med school and there was a 13-year-old boy named Chris who had Ewing’s sarcoma,” Dr. Gnerlich says. We became very close, watched ER together every Thursday night. He was a great kid, super smart. Unfortunately, his cancer spread and he passed away my first year of med school.”
On what she brings to her patients: “My patients say that I’m always their advocate, no matter what the issue is,” Dr. Gnerlich says. “Many of them have my cell number. I don’t come from a family of physicians. My dad was a police officer; my mom’s a bookkeeper; and I was raised to have a big work ethic. A lot of my patients can relate to that.”
Dr. Jennifer Gnerlich, M.D.
LSU Healthcare Network
3700 St. Charles Ave, 3rd Floor
University: University of Chicago
Medical School: University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine
General Surgery Residency: Washington University, St. Louis
General Surgical Oncology Fellowship: University of Chicago Medical Center