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The Cancer Crusade: M. D. Anderson's Journey Through the Eyes of a Historian

Conquest - Spring 2009

By Brenda Gunter and Bayan Raji

James Olson, Ph.D., works in the past, but he lives in the present.

Originally diagnosed with epitheliod sarcoma in 1981, he came to M. D. Anderson for treatment. Nearly 30 years later, the institution has seen him through 10 recurrences, many rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, and the amputation of his left forearm.

Olson doesn’t dwell on the past, but it’s his profession to explore it. He has taught history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, since 1972.

As a historian with this personal experience of cancer, Olson brings a unique perspective to a new book that details the history of the institution that saved his life. “Disease and Discovery at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center: Making Cancer History,” which will be published this spring by the Johns Hopkins University Press, took him eight years to finish.

Just as Olson’s own battle with cancer had high peaks and near-bottom lows, M. D. Anderson didn’t gain the U.S. News & World Report ranking as the nation’s No. 1 cancer center overnight. He hopes he’s shown that in the book.

“The history of M. D. Anderson requires neither apology nor embellishment, and I intend the book to be more than a psalm of grateful praise,” he says. “Triumphal history is boring, uncritical and dishonest, denying the vicissitudes of human nature with its hubris and heroism, its flashes of miserable failure and soaring success.”

Creating ‘new knowledge’ from old material

Olson came up with the idea to write a history of the institution in 1986 but was told it wasn’t the right time. Then, in 1999, M. D. Anderson announced it was looking for historians interested in the subject.

“Our national search for an appropriate author for the history had not yet turned up a candidate who seemed a match with the institution and its culture,” says Stephen Tomasovic, Ph.D., senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “However, when Steve Stuyck, vice president for Public Affairs, and I learned Dr. Olson once had expressed an interest in the project and then had the chance to meet him, we knew we had found not only a greatly qualified historian but also a perfect match to M. D. Anderson and its fascinating history.”

Olson began work right away

Although he received nearly unlimited access to the institution, Olson was not allowed to view patient records. To keep the manuscript personal, he used much of his own narrative in the book. But the close ties also created a challenge for him.

He didn’t want to write a book of glorification. He wanted it to be balanced.

“Historians are supposed to take a big step back from the things we’re writing about and try to be dispassionate and objective, try to see what’s actually there,” Olson says. “The problem I had is I feel like M. D. Anderson has saved my life many times now.”

To get around that issue, he waded through nearly half a million pages of documents, a number of personal interviews and countless stories to discover and record the history of an institution that has been working to cure cancer since the Texas Legislature approved its creation in 1941.

A history of his own

Diagnosed with a type of brain cancer known as a glioma while he was working on the book, Olson battled bouts of depression and struggled to finish. It was his daughter who gave him the piece of advice he originally gave her as a young girl at a track meet many years before.

“It was hard for me to deal with brain cancer and read cancer documents all day long. Finally, I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ And then this 35-year-old woman says to me, ‘Dad just finish the race. Just finish it,’” he says.

This inspired him to complete the project.

Today, he is at the end of this chapter and happy to be here. Having a passion for the present as well as the past, Olson can’t wait to get to the next episode of his life.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center