By Kim Hasty
A father who wants to live to see his son play in the big game.
A mother who wants to prepare the family members who must now take on the care of her child with special needs.
For them, Dr. Pragatheeshwar Thirunavukarasu – Dr. Prag – with his kind face, listening ear and surgical skills, is their champion.
But to him, they are the ones who are the heroes.
“Their stories, the amount of work they do, is 90 percent of it,” he said. “These cancers happen to the nicest of people.
“Cancer’s not a death sentence,” he said. “We all have to leave this world. I like to help people leave on their own terms.
Dr. Prag, 37, is a surgeon certified in both general surgery and complex general surgical oncology by the American Board of Surgery. He specializes in those for whom cancer has spread and, often, for whom there are no other options.
He recently joined the staff at Cape Fear Valley Health System after working at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Oklahoma. He is fellowship-trained in both surgical oncology and hepato-pancreaticobiliary surgery. His focus is on tumors of the gastrointestinal tract, liver and pancreas as well as peritoneal surface malignancies. In other words, there aren’t many surgeons like him in the United States.
His wife, a nephrologist, has also joined Cape Fear Valley Health.
“We have phenomenal potential here,” he said. “I’ve never seen a hospital give this much importance to education.”
Prag is a native of Chennai, India near the border of Sri Lanka, who scored so high on his entrance exams that he was able to go straight to medical school from high school. He then came to the United States for extensive postgraduate training, completing a surgical internship and general surgery residency at the University of Pennsylvania and then at the University of Pittsburgh.
Prag also completed two clinical fellowships, at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in complex general surgical oncology and then at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
“My interest was to do this complicated stuff,” he said.
Which seems to be putting it mildly.
One of Prag’s specialties is hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy or HIPEC, a treatment for patients with cancer in the abdomen. The operation is a two-step process.
“The first part is opening up the abdomen, sucking out all of the contaminated fluid and then removing the tumor to the maximum extent possible,” Prag said.
The second part involves pouring heated chemotherapy into the abdomen. The surgery lasts hours, but has shown to extend survival rates in some patients.
Prag knows that shock often is the first reaction to a cancer diagnosis, but he encourages patients not to panic.
“It could be that the cancer can be treated as a chronic illness,” he said.
He believes in a team approach to cancer treatment that could involve an oncologist, radiation oncologist, a cancer surgeon and even a nutritionist. He is known for taking the time to listen to patients and develop a relationship with them and their families.
“My mentor always told me that if you treat the cancer, you may win or lose,” he said. “But if you treat the patient, you always win. That’s what I try to do.”
That has been his mission with the many Stage 4 cancer patients who have come to him for a cure or just to buy a little more time. He believes each patient should be allowed to reach a point of peace.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “We have a lot of people who need help. I’ll take anybody who wants to come see me.”