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After 5 decades fighting war on cancer, Topeka doctor calls it a career

Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 11:01 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - In 1968, gas was 34 cents a gallon; bread cost 21 cents a loaf; and Dr. Edwin Petrik started his career treating cancer.

“Really, I just showed up to work most every day, and, 53 years later, here we are!” he said.

It’s a career that comes to an end Jan. 14, 2022, when Dr. Petrik walks out of Stormont Vail Cancer Center, and into retirement.

Dr. Petrik has been with the field of oncology since before it officially began - it did not become a board-certified specialty until 1973. He points to files stacked around his office and stuffed in cabinet drawers, saying they embody the history of the field.

“The study of what causes cancer - and we’re learning a lot more about it - is so intriguing and fascinating, I don’t ever plan to stop (studying it). Applying that to try to help mankind and relieve suffering is what a physician does or a clinician does,” Dr. Petrik said.

Becoming a physician was somewhat of an accident. Dr. Petrik said he always thought he’d be a mathematician - until he took a physiology class at KU.

“It was when we dissected a frog - and that was so fascinating,” he said.

It built on an interest developed serving in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, where he studied biological, chemical and radiological warfare. There, he learned about nitrogen mustard, and he learned how researchers were realizing this weapon of war could be used as a weapon against disease.

“It killed people because it suppresses bone marrow. A lot of cancers start in the bone marrow. If you can kill those cells in the bone marrow, you might be able to stop the disease without unduly harming or killing the individual you’re trying to treat,” he explained.

Dr. Petrik marched from the Army to medical school. He arrived at Stormont in 1971, the same year Pres. Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, declaring War on Cancer. It’s a battle Dr. Petrik has seen evolve over its entire five decades, from new treatments to new technologies - those medical records have moved from paper to computers.

“To take what we do know about disease to try to help relieve suffering, and apply it to people, is an experience that really moves me,” he said.

But as time marches on, Dr. Petrik has decided it’s time to say goodbye.

“I’m 86 years of age, and you get your aches and pains, but I think I feel about as good today - and I’m very, very grateful for that - as I did on the day I started practice,” he said. “But I do not have the energy to work like I’ve been privileged and had the opportunity to do.”

Dr. Petrik says he owes his long career to good leadership and good staff.

“I’ve had rough days. I’ve had tough days. I have never dreaded coming to work,” he said.

More than that, though, he credits his beloved wife.

“I spent a lot of time in the clinic, a lot of time in the hospital. She never complained when I got home late. For that I will be ever, forever grateful,” he said.

His advice to the next generation of physicians: Listen.

“Compassion and empathy are important. Sometimes your empathy tank will get empty, but you have to recognize that and fill it up again if you can,” he said. “You have to have compassion. You have to have concern.”

At the end of the day, he says, it’s all about the people for whom you’re caring.

“They’re the ones that went through it. All I’ve done is just use the tools that the good Lord gave people to create, to try to help mankind,” he said. “Being a physician is a tremendous privilege. The satisfaction that comes from that is very great.”

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