As a physician and daughter, Dr. Crystal S. Denlinger ’98 is in the right position to set the standards for cancer patient care.
On the July 4th weekend between her junior and senior year in high school, Crystal Denlinger’s parents visited her at her lifeguarding job to break the news that her father had kidney cancer. It was 1993, and the only treatment at the time, doctors had told them, was surgery to remove the tumor. “But there really were no drugs to treat the cancer,” Denlinger says. “So, if the cancer came back, they said, that was going to be a problem.” The experience navigating a cancer diagnosis with her father was transformative.
She planned to become a doctor — she had told her first-grade teacher as much — and to apply to TCNJ’s seven-year medical program. But this was a firsthand lesson in the trials of the patient experience. “I understood the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis — and how that changed so much for our family,” she says.
Now, as senior vice president, chief scientific officer at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Denlinger makes sure patients dealing with cancer are armed with both the information and care they need. The NCCN is a not-for-profit alliance of 31 leading cancer centers that work together to research treatments and develop care standards. And those standards, says Denlinger, ensure equity in treatment. While she was able to expertly navigate her father’s care until his passing in 2008 — and also help her mother when she was diagnosed with breast cancer nine months later — she knows not everyone is lucky enough to have a “daughter doctor” in the family.
The kinds of guidelines that NCCN produces not only improve survival outcomes and lower costs on the medical side, she notes, but also make sure that everyone gets the same level of care, no matter who or where they are.
Denlinger’s role at the NCCN also involves managing research into new cancer therapies, which offers her an exciting, hopeful perspective.
“I hope that we can continue to define the right therapy, for the right patient, at the right time,” she says. “And that is not just about the molecular biomarkers of the tumor, but also what’s in line with the patient’s wishes in terms of goals of care and quality of life.”
Denlinger sees patients as a medical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia once a week and will occasionally share her story with the family of her patients — especially with kids who are struggling with a parent’s cancer diagnosis. She tells them that she’s been there, too. “I do know what it’s like to sit in that chair next to the exam table and listen when bad news is given,” she says. “And that does help sometimes, especially when we’re having hard conversations about what the future holds.”
In those moments, Denlinger reflects on something her father told her the summer before he died. “My dad said that this experience will make me a better doctor,” says Denlinger. “I’d like to hope that I’m living up to that.”
Picture: Bill Cardoni