IOWA CITY — Iowa is a national leader in cancer surveillance, and Kathleen McKeen has been there nearly every step of the way.
McKeen, 77, of Iowa City, is retiring Sept. 4 as director of the Iowa Cancer Registry after working nearly 60 years at the University of Iowa. She is the longest-serving professional and scientific employee at the UI.
“One of our biggest goals is to figure out how to help patients survive,” McKeen said of the registry, which has documented and tracked the occurrence of cancer in Iowa since 1973.
McKeen got involved in cancer surveillance much earlier. She was hired at the UI Hospitals and Clinics in 1959, a month after her graduation from Williamsburg High School and a month before she turned 18.
“I’m the oldest of seven children. My mother was a widow,” she said. “I felt like I needed to get work and get stability.”
Working with the UIHC-based cancer registry, which started in 1957, McKeen reviewed patient files and entered information manually in the paper-based system. They tracked all patients diagnosed with cancer, following them throughout the years to note symptoms, treatment and survival.
McKeen was named assistant director of the new statewide cancer registry in 1978 and director in 1982.
In recent years she has supervised a staff of 50, including 20 field employees situated throughout the state, who work with hospitals, clinics and medical laboratories in Iowa and neighboring states to collect cancer data. A follow-up program has been successful in tracking nearly all cancer survivors diagnosed since 1973.
“I like to refer to the registry people as detectives,” McKeen said. “I’m making sure all the steps are done.”
Charles Lynch, a UI epidemiology professor and principal investigator for the federal contract that funds the bulk of the Iowa registry, said McKeen’s commitment and knowledge have been vital.
“Kathleen has been very dedicated to cancer surveillance,” Lynch said. “Her 50-plus years of service in this area has given her immense experience, which for me has been her strongest talent.”
Cancer data, reported to the federal government, are used for public health studies looking at cancer causes, links between cancers and outcomes of cancer patients, among other topics. The data allow the state to publish an annual Cancer in Iowa report. The 2018 report noted data would be collected on an estimated 17,800 new invasive cancers among Iowans.
McKeen has trained registry officials in other Midwestern states and helped write the exam for the Certified Tumor Registrar credential, a qualification for cancer registry personnel.
McKeen, who has always thought of her work as a hobby, decided to retire earlier this year after the UI’s registry contract was renewed for another 10 years. She looks forward to watching more Hawkeye football, basketball and wrestling — sports for which she and her husband, Dick McKeen, have season tickets.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve worked at the university,” she said. “Just living in this community is fun.”
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