Have you ever stopped to think: what is cancer, exactly? Where did it come from? Why haven’t we found a cure? For a disease that’s the second-leading cause of death and is diagnosed in more than 1 million people each year, you would think we’d be well-versed in the answers to these questions. Yet most of us are not…not many outside of the medical community, that is.
What is this antagonist of the human race that invades us from within? Why does it choose one person over another? More importantly, can it ever be stopped?
Enter Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., PhD, author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
Dr. Mukherjee not only answers these questions, but gives us much more—a detailed timeline and history of cancer, or “karkinos” (crab or crayfish) as it was originally called 4,000 years ago in the first documented accounts.
Dr. Mukherjee visited Dallas on Tuesday, March 22 as the keynote speaker at Baylor Health Care System’s Leadership Development Institute (LDI). Of all the fascinating facts and stories he shared with us, there are a few that stood out:
- Anything is possible.
Dr. Mukherjee frequently reminds his interns to think of 1955. This was the year that acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) finally became treatable. It is now 80% curable in children, but prior to that time, was 100% deadly. Before 1955, the consensus regarding treatment was “why bother?” His point: It’s a good thing Dr. Sidney Farber, a pioneer of modern cancer treatment, “bothered.”
- A group of thoughtful, committed citizens can in fact change the world.
When the “war on cancer” was officially launched in 1969 with a New York Times advertisement, it read: “Mr. Nixon, You Can Cure Cancer.” As a result of the campaign committee’s efforts, the budget for the National Cancer Institute was increased. Since that time, we have seen dramatic improvements in mortality rates thanks to groundbreaking research that was given a chance. According to Dr. Mukherjee, we owe this improvement to human ingenuity. “We have taken the curve of the disease and turned it around as if it were a wire,” as he so eloquently put it.
- Cancer is here to stay, BUT…
A question asked by an LDI audience member sparked a humbling discussion about curing cancer. “Will we ever see an end to cancer?” Dr. Mukherjee’s reply: Probably not. Some, but not all cancers will go away. Unlike a bacterial or viral illness, cancer cannot be eradicated. It is built into our genome. However, we know more about cancer than ever and we are changing the dynamics of it.
- Stopping doesn’t mean giving up.
Another audience member asked: “As physicians, we struggle with deciding when to stop treatment. How do you know for sure?” Dr. Mukherjee’s answer: We don’t. The practice of medicine cannot be captured in simple reality. We have to balance the statistical reality with psychological reality. Physicians have to use their brains like stethoscopes to really understand what the patient needs and wants.
- Having second thoughts can save lives.
Dr. Mukherjee pointed out two examples of people who reconsidered their declination to participate in cancer research. These two people–a three-year-old boy’s mother and a breast cancer survivor–changed the course of history. Had they not had second thoughts about their decisions, we may have waited even longer for some of the most groundbreaking discoveries in the history of medicine—chemotherapy and Herceptin®.
Following Dr. Mukherjee’s hour-long presentation, most of the LDI attendees had the same reaction of “wow.” Whispers of “Who knew?” “Amazing!” and “I bought the book from my phone during the presentation,” rippled across the ballroom faster than you could say “bestseller.” Outside of Baylor, Dr. V recently reviewed the book on his blog and was impressed with Dr. Mukherjee’s compelling writing.
You know the old adage about knowing your enemy as you do yourself? As a health care organization dedicated to fighting cancer, Baylor has diligently studied cancer, attempting to calculate its next moves for more than 100 years.
After hearing Dr. Mukherjee’s presentation, we feel like we know our opponent even better. We’ve been given its biography. Especially if you have cancer…”you have to know what it is you’re fighting.” Actually, that was the question asked by a patient of Dr. Mukherjee’s which sparked the entire book.
Thanks to Dr. Mukherjee, we now know the answer.
Have you read the book? Were you in attendance at the LDI? What did you take away from it? Do you have anything to add to this list? We would love to hear your thoughts.