When Jessie Marcus found out she had colorectal cancer in June 2020, she wasn’t just frightened. She was terrified.

She had radiation therapy at one highly respected medical institution in Los Angeles and chemotherapy at another. But when it came to surgery to remove the tumor, the freelance television producer, who is in her 60s and who gives herself titles like “Fire Chief” and “Head Magician” in her production companies, was still searching for a doctor who made her feel safe. That’s when she met Anton J. Bilchik, MD, PhD, a surgical oncologist.

Dr. Bilchik, together with Rudolph A. Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist, are heading up the newly established Providence Saint John’s Health Center Digestive Health Institute. The Digestive Health Institute is part of a growing network of institutes that reflect Providence Saint John’s commitment to providing state-of-the-art care.

“When Dr. Bilchik walked into the room, he said, ‘This is a lot to deal with. How is your life?’ ” Marcus recalls. “I knew he was a great surgeon. But to go into an overwhelming situation like this, I felt like I was being heard in a compassionate way by someone who was on my side.

“This is a man who, when I reached out my hand just before surgery, grabbed it and held on,” she adds. “He gave me that assurance. At a follow-up visit after the surgery, he walked into the room and said, ‘You must be thrilled with the best pathologist report there is.’ ”

That report showed that Marcus’ cancer had been removed and contained. After one more surgery in April, she considered herself done with the cancer.

Providence Saint John’s strives to provide personalized, empathetic care, and it’s key to what you can expect at the new Digestive Health Institute, Dr. Bedford says. Philanthropic support for the institute is the key to providing patients with academic-level service, he says.

“Within a community hospital, we provide personalized attention that one may not achieve through large academic institutions,” he says. “We’re also nimble enough to get things done quickly.”

“Providing comprehensive care—from diagnosis through recovery and survival—is important to the health center’s digestive health team,” says Dr. Bilchik.

“Saint John’s is uniquely positioned to provide the best possible care,” he says. “We perform some of the most advanced surgical procedures, including robotic surgery. We have a proven track record of transferring research to the bedside, and we have exceptional providers across all specialties.”

The institute brings together several specialties to address the many diseases affecting the digestive system, with special emphasis on:

Colorectal Cancer: Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S., but it’s highly treatable. This year, Providence Saint John’s will launch a screening program for people 45 and older to address the recent five- to sixfold increase in cases among younger people. It’s the only cancer increasing so dramatically in younger people, Dr. Bilchik says. The reasons for this increase in young people are unknown, he says, but two theories are that it’s linked to imbalances in the microbiome related to nutrition or to the use of antibiotics at a young age that may kill helpful bacteria.

Pancreas Cancer: Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths, and few advances have been made in treating it. It’s a complex disease and requires the kind of expertise available at Providence Saint John’s. Dr. Bedford is a nationally recognized expert in performing advanced diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopy and ultrasound of the pancreas and the biliary system, and Dr. Bilchik is one of the national leaders in pancreas and liver surgery.

Fatty Liver Disease: The Digestive Health Institute has a special focus on treating the rising number of cases of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This disease is increasing around the U.S. in people of all ages, most likely due to the nation’s obesity epidemic, Dr. Bilchik says. Fatty liver disease occurs when too much fat is stored in liver cells. It is now the No. 1 cause of primary liver cancer in the U.S.

Esophagus and Stomach: Everyone at some point in their life experiences acid reflux, which if not treated properly can lead to worse symptoms and could become a precursor to cancer of the esophagus. The Digestive Health Institute team includes a gastroenterologist with a special interest in this area who works with advanced manometry and motility equipment to treat patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Bariatric Surgery: Obesity, which now occurs in more than 40% of American adults, is a factor in diseases ranging from coronary disease to diabetes to clinical depression and even some types of cancer. A newly recruited bariatric surgeon with special expertise in robotic surgery at the Digestive Health Institute will perform gastric bypass and other weight-loss surgeries affecting the digestive system to help obese patients who have not been helped by other weight-loss treatments. A nutritionist is available to work with weight-loss patients as well as other institute patients.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: This common disorder affecting the large intestine is experienced by 10% to 15% of Americans, and it’s twice as common in women. It’s typically triggered by foods or stress. After making sure the symptoms—abdominal pain, cramping, gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation—aren’t caused by underlying disease, the Digestive Health Institute team manages this chronic condition with a multidisciplinary approach that includes diet and stress-relief techniques. The institute also performs motility studies to examine whether the esophagus, stomach and colon are functioning properly.

“We’ve been learning more and more about how important the gastrointestinal tract is in all diseases, from cardiovascular disease to brain health to cancer,” Dr. Bilchik says. “Your body hosts more than 2 trillion bacteria, called the microbiome, and research has increasingly shown they play a role in just about every disease.”

The institute, he says, employs a coordinated approach to understanding and treating these diseases by focusing on disease prevention, nutrition, cancer screening, management of obesity and chronic conditions, cutting-edge innovation and surgery.

It will also overlap with other centers of excellence at Providence Saint John’s, including the Women’s Health & Wellness Institute, the Cardiovascular Institute, the Pacific Neuroscience Institute and Saint John’s Cancer Institute, creating a unique opportunity for patients to receive the best quality of care in the most effective manner and in a patient-friendly environment.

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Dr. Rudolph A. Bedford and Dr. Anton J. Bilchik