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The man behind the genetic link to colon cancer

Richard Boland, MD, always was an overachiever. He was one of the top students in his high school class, graduated magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame and excelled at Yale Medical School.

Most young people with that kind of academic track record likely would feel like they were capable of changing the world. However, Dr. Boland had a fatalistic view of life. Colorectal cancer killed his physician father, paternal grandfather and great grandfather in their 40s. Many of his father’s siblings also died of cancer before age 50. He was afraid to set long-term goals, because he was convinced he would not live long enough to achieve them.C. Richard Boland

“I had a dysfunctional fear that I would die young. At midnight on my 30th birthday, I decided it was a stupid thing to be afraid of,” Dr. Boland said. “I decided that I was going to live a lot longer, I was going to make every day worthwhile. It was time to turn it and take charge.”

Dr. Boland resolved to solve the riddle behind his family’s history of colorectal cancer. His medical school thesis was titled “A Familial Cancer Syndrome,” focusing on his family’s medical pedigree. He accomplished his mission by 2001 by determining the gene mutation that ravaged his family and developed a way to detect it. He tested everyone in his family tree who was the child of a relative who developed the cancer. Those who had the mutation were urged to act. Men were told to have annual colonoscopies. Women were encouraged to have their uterus and ovaries removed after bearing children. Since then, none of his relatives has developed cancer.

Dr. Boland is writing a book about the family’s battle with the disease, and is credited with naming it Lynch syndrome. He has published more than 360 papers and written authoritative chapters in several textbooks.

As many as 1 out of 4 people diagnosed with colorectal cancer annually have a familial risk of colorectal cancer. The U.S. Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer urges patients with or at risk of Lynch syndrome to have a colonoscopy every 1-2 years beginning at ages 20 to 25. In contrast, the American Cancer Society recommends screening to begin at age 50 for people with an average risk.

Dr. Boland has been chief of gastroenterology services at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas since 2003. Baylor Dallas is nationally recognized for treating patients with digestive and colon and rectal issues.  U.S. News & World Report ranked Baylor Dallas among the nation’s top 50 hospitals for gastroenterology and digestive disease in 2015, for the 19th time.

Dr. Boland received the American Gastroenterological Association’s 2015 William Beaumont Prize in Gastroenterology, which recognizes a member’s major contribution that has significantly advanced gastroenterological basic or clinical research, as well as his contributions to the understanding of familial colorectal cancer.

“That award really took me by surprise. It is an unbelievably great thing. I just about fell out of my chair when I got the telephone call. This is the biggest honor of my life and the biggest one I’ll ever get,” Dr. Boland said.

Dr. Boland also will be awarded the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Collaborative Group of the Americas on Inherited Colorectal Cancer at a dinner banquet at the organization’s annual meeting in October. The award is presented to an individual who has had an important and lasting impact on the understanding and treatment of hereditary colorectal cancer.

About the author

Steve Jacob
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Steve is a senior marketing and public relations consultant for Baylor Scott & White Health. He spent nearly four decades in newspaper and magazine editorial and business management and is the author of two books on healthcare reform. He was also the founding editor of D Magazine's D Healthcare Daily.

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The man behind the genetic link to colon cancer