New Hollings doctor offers a different perspective on head and neck cancer

April 22, 2022
Dr. Robert Labadie
Dr. Robert Labadie is the new chair of the MUSC Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Before becoming a physician scientist, Robert Labadie, M.D., Ph.D., was an engineer, and it shows in the approach he brings as the new chair of the MUSC Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

“I think one of the most exciting things about our head and neck team at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center is we are open to new and improved ways of doing things,” Labadie said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. We are interested in doing it the right way to give our patients the best possible outcomes.”

Labadie joins the MUSC team after 20 years at Vanderbilt, where he held the directorship for translational research in otolaryngology. While serving in that role, he was tasked with building the Department of Otolaryngology’s research enterprise. He did so, playing a principal role in the department’s rise to a No. 2 ranking in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding.

Labadie said he was drawn to this new role, joining the head and neck cancer team at Hollings, because he knows how rare it is to find a team of highly trained specialists operating under one roof that can provide every aspect of care needed to help these patients.

Doing it the right way includes collaborating with all of the specialists needed to treat complex head and neck cancer cases successfully. A trained mechanical engineer by trade, Labadie admits he oftentimes sees things differently from other people.

Dr. Robert Labadie performs surgery while two assistants look on 
Labadie continues to explore new and improved techniques for ear surgery, including using robotic surgical approaches. Photo by Clif Rhodes

“I approach things with a different perspective. The way things have been done in the past shouldn’t dictate how things can be done in the future. I look at a situation and think, ‘How can we do things better?’ I think as chair of the department, I can help others to embrace change while constantly striving to move the science forward.”

Labadie specializes in otologic surgery and has made tremendous contributions in the field using new and improved techniques for cochlear implant surgery and restoring hearing to patients. While at Vanderbilt, Labadie received NIH funding to look at new techniques for ear surgery, such as robotic surgical approaches that included temporal bone resections in head and neck cancer patients.

“This type of surgery involves the removal of cancer in the middle and external ears,” he said. “During this procedure, you remove the external ear and all of the bone behind it. Then, you reconstruct the ear and try and restore hearing.”

In his new role at Hollings, Labadie said he hopes to foster further collaboration between researchers and physicians to provide patients with access to the latest treatments. He understands the importance of working as a team to ensure the highest-quality care possible.

Labadie said Hollings offers patients what few other centers in the country can — access to every aspect of their care in a single location. That includes the MUSC Health Maxillofacial Prosthodontic Division that bridges medicine and dentistry to create prosthetic eyes, ears, nose, teeth and palates.

“I approach things with a different perspective. The way things have been done in the past shouldn’t dictate how things can be done in the future. I look at a situation and think, ‘How can we do things better?’”
— Dr. Robert Labadie

“There are less than a handful of cancer centers nationally that have a dental lab integrated within the cancer clinic,” Labadie said. “That is important for patients to know because most head and neck cancer surgeries are extremely disfiguring. However, because patients have access to this lab, they can actually have temporary prosthetics ready for them before they leave the hospital after surgery.”

Offering head and neck cancer patients access to prosthetics is just one way Hollings aims to improve the quality of life for cancer patients and survivors — by making them more comfortable in social settings. And, along with other Hollings specialists, like Evan Graboyes, M.D., Labadie hopes to expand services and bring much-deserved national prominence to studies that examine survivorship and quality of life after treatment is complete — an area in which Graboyes is a leader.

“If you can learn something from a patient that can teach you something about how to treat future patients, that is really exciting. As the chair, I can do that and guide the department as we move forward and really dive into the survivorship aspect of care, in a way that no one else in the country really has done.”

In addition to survivorship, Labadie said he is excited to offer patients access to more head and neck cancer clinical trials testing cutting-edge treatments that could be the next big breakthrough in cancer medicine. “As Hollings is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in South Carolina, we have the opportunity to offer these trials to our patients that other locations can’t. That offers hope and discovery and gives us the chance to change the landscape of cancer medicine.”

Labadie is excited about the advancements that have been made in head and neck cancer over the last decade and looks forward to tackling the next chapter of cancer research and care at Hollings.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is ‘Are we okay with where survival rates are today?’ People die of head and neck cancer every day. Wouldn’t it be great if we got to the point where this isn’t a terminal disease? At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about.”