Meet Dr. Hagen Kennecke: Following his passion to advance cancer care

Some doctors discover their career path after a profound personal experience. Others see a gap in patient care and feel compelled to act. Hagen Kennecke, M.D., MHA, FRCPC, can say both played a role in sparking his passion for cancer research and setting him on the path that led to Providence Cancer Institute of Oregon.

Recently, Dr. Kennecke, medical oncologist and medical director of gastrointestinal oncology at Providence, took time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions about what inspired him to pursue his career in oncology, what he finds rewarding about his work, and the ways he grounds himself during his busy life. In addition to his important work at Providence, Dr. Kennecke has a growing family and also runs a small farm in Hood River.

When we caught up with Dr. Kennecke he’d just presented a research study, a cumulation of five years of work on a new treatment for patients with early-stage rectal cancer. The treatment requires only minimal surgery. Dr. Kennecke explained: “Our results show that most patients can be treated with three months of chemotherapy followed by surgical excision and no further treatment. This is particularly helpful for patients who were thought to need a permanent [colostomy] bag and for patients who are young and want to preserve their bowel function.”

The study was presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2021 annual meeting and involved a large group of patients treated in Canada and the United States. A national follow-up study is planned with U.S. and Canadian research groups to offer this strategy to a larger group of patients and to ask whether radiation can be used to help more patients avoid surgery. “Stay tuned!” said Dr. Kennecke.

Inspired to do more for cancer patients

Early in his medical career, Dr. Kennecke cared for colorectal cancer patients who lived for many years with reduced quality of life. He felt there was a gap in treatment options that needed to be addressed.

 “I realized treatments had not significantly advanced since the early 1990s. While surgery had gotten much better, we were still treating all patients the same way, including [treating all patients with] chemotherapy and radiation. Despite this, many patients required a permanent [colostomy] bag,” he said.

Around the same time, a close friend of Dr. Kennecke was diagnosed with rectal cancer in his 40s. “I saw how the treatments affected his daily life,” he said.

Determined to improve care and outcomes for colorectal cancer patients, Dr. Kennecke set his sights on developing clinical trials for treatments that didn’t rely on radical surgery. His work spanned the globe through national and international collaborations.

Dr. Kennecke said his quest to find better treatments for cancer has shaped his belief in the important role clinical trials play in advancing cancer care, including treatment for neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), also known as carcinoids. NETs are rare and primarily occur in the appendix, small intestine, rectum and pancreas.

Dedicated to research

Dr. Kennecke brought his dogged determination and passion for research to Providence in March 2021, where in addition to his work as a clinician researcher and medical director, he serves as the co-chair of the Southwest Oncology Group (SWOG) Recto-Anal Cancer Subcommittee and is the immediate past chair of the Rectal-Anal Task Force of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

“I have the privilege of sub-specializing in gastrointestinal cancers which allows me to offer the best possible care to my patients with treatments and possibilities according to the current research. My role at the National Cancer Institute Gastrointestinal Steering committee allows me to participate in new cancer research in development and make these options available to our patients. I find this incredibly rewarding.”

In addition to conducting ongoing studies with research teams at Providence, Dr. Kennecke treats patients with gastrointestinal malignancies, colorectal, liver and pancreatic cancers. He specializes in treating NET patients and has published numerous papers on Peptide Receptor Radioparticle Therapy (PRRT) to treat these rare tumors. The ground-breaking treatment uses a drug along with a radioactive protein to target and destroy cancer cells. Since joining Providence, Dr. Kennecke has expanded clinical services to include care for NET patients and established Providence as one of only a handful of centers offering PRRT in the Pacific Northwest. In August 2021, he had the privilege of treating the first Providence patient with PRRT.

Dr. Kennecke and other caregivers celebrate the launch of PRRT for NET patients at Providence.

Rectal Cancer Program accreditation

In June 2021, Providence Cancer Institute’s Rectal Cancer Program earned accreditation from the National Accreditation Program for Rectal Cancer (NAPRC). Providence Portland and Providence St. Vincent medical centers were the first in the Pacific Northwest and among the first 25 in the nation to earn this honor. Dr. Kennecke couldn’t be prouder. Since then, Providence Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Washington, also received NAPRC accreditation.

Programs that receive accreditation provide specialized treatment by a multidisciplinary team that has shown to improve outcomes. For patients with rectal cancer, that means lower rates of cancer recurrence, lower rates of requiring a permanent colostomy, and better long-term survival.

“We are delighted that Providence is among the few centers recognized by NAPRC with its standards of excellence” said Dr. Kennecke after the announcement. “Our NAPRC accreditation allows all patients in need of rectal cancer care to be individualized and treated according to national guidelines.” 

Recently, the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their recommendations for cancer screenings after data collected over the past 20 years showed an increase in colorectal cancer diagnoses in patients under age 50. Now, cancer screenings are recommended for patients starting at age 45. “Lowering the age of screenings allows us to catch the cancer early when it can be cured,” said Dr. Kennecke.

To help prevent colon cancer, Dr. Kennecke recommends increasing daily movement and exercise, avoiding red and processed meat, and eating more whole foods. He also encourages adults 45 and older to get screened, even if colon cancer isn’t in their family history. “Family history accounts for only a small proportion of those diagnosed with colorectal cancer,” he said.

Keeping life in balance

With a full schedule caring for patients and pursuing and publishing research, Dr. Kennecke has found ways to maintain balance in his own life. Throughout the week he takes long bike rides around Portland in the Columbia River Gorge or through Hood River’s bucolic countryside. The outings help quiet his mind, refuel his body and renew his focus.

“Biking is a huge passion and outlet for me,” he said. “At the beginning of a ride my mind is still churning, thinking of projects and my patient encounters. As the ride progresses, my mind clears and I can focus on my performance, the beautiful Oregon surrounding and by the end of the ride I am ready for new challenges!”

To learn more about our patient care, cancer research and clinical trials visit Providence Cancer Institute of Oregon.

Related Resources

Jenny’s story: A young mother’s journey through cancer and COVID-19

New research laboratory employs biomedical engineering for precision cancer surgery

Colorectal cancer increases in younger populations, emphasizing importance of screenings

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