The Book: Making Cancer History - Disease and Discovery at M. D. Anderson

M. D. Anderson Cancer Center

Cancer Newsline Audio Podcast Series

Date: June 08, 2009

Duration: 0 / 13:29

 

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Dr. Ray Dubois:

 

Welcome to Cancer Newsline a weekly podcast series from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I am your host Dr. Ray Dubois Provost and Executive Vice-President at M.D. Anderson. Cancer Newsline is a source of cancer news that usually helps you stay current on the latest information on treatment, research, and prevention. But today we're gonna take a slight twist. Today, we are talking about the history in growth of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center one of the nations largest and most respected Cancer Centers and what its evolution has met to cancer research and patient care. We are pleased to have it with us today the President of M.D. Anderson and an internationally recognized cancer researcher, Dr. John Mendelsohn, and the author of a new book that details the 65 year history of M.D. Anderson, Dr. James Olson. Doctor Olson is a noted History Professor at Sam Houston State University, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and a two-time cancer survivor who experienced the culture in care of M.D. Anderson first hand. His new book, " Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery," at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has just been published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Welcome to Cancer Newsline. Doctor Mendelsohn, let's start with your reflections on the book. You joined M.D. Anderson as President about 13 years ago and have been responsible for its tremendous growth in the recent history. How does M. D. Anderson's history contributes to its culture today? John?

 

Dr. John Mendelsohn:

 

Well, this is a very exciting book from my point of view. It's a biography of an institution, it's about 65 or 70 years old, and it's a history of what happened in the field of cancer during the past 65 to 70 year when the whole field changed. How does this book and how does this history contribute to our culture today? We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We are what we are because of our history which is specially emphasized taking science and translating it into new diagnostic tests and treatments for patients. I think that's what where special at and you go back to the 90s and 60s and 1970s in this book and you'll see the germ of that already occurring.

 

Dubois:

 

Do you have a favorite passage or story from the book?

 

Mendelsohn:

 

Well, I enjoyed reading the whole book but I guess the most exciting period for me was the period between about 1965 and '70 when Lee Clark who was a skilled surgeon, a very well-known surgeon actually did two things. First of all, he recruited fabulous people here, mostly not surgeons, chemotherapists, radiation therapists, experimental therapeutic specialists, and then set up the paradigm that surgeons and medical oncologists and radiation therapists who'd worked together collaborator--collaborating a multi-disciplinary approaches to cancer rather than a surgeon doing what they wanna do and then handing it of to the medical guide to do what he wants to do or she and then handing that of to radio therapists. And that culture of sharing from the beginning, the planning and care of the patient has carried us forward.

 

Dubois:

Dr. Olson, do you have a favorite passage in the book? You obviously wrote the book.

 

Dr. James Olson:

 

I've got a number of favorite passages. I started off with one of my favorite passages, and that was the story of Freddy Steinmark, the University of Texas football player who developed cancer soon after the team had won the national championship and he was treated here at M.D. Anderson. And that passage gave me an opportunity to introduce some of the major players in the history institution. So, I like that story. I enjoyed learning myself of reading about kind of the rise and fall of radical surgery, development of the Cobalt-60 and the rise of the M.D. Anderson reputation in radiation oncology. I like reading about combination chemotherapy and how that, [simultaneous talking] how the evolved. Yeah, and I enjoyed very much Dr. Mendelsohn's look at the future of cancer therapies, targeted therapies and the great variety of treatments that--

 

Dubois:

 

So as a cancer survivor this must been a quite personal experienced for you to write and considering the time that you spent here as a patient at M.D. Anderson, what do you think that people would be most surprise about this book?

 

Olson:

 

I think one thing I hope is that people will see how complicated the disease has been and how difficult to struggle against it. But I think sometimes people who, like me, before I start looking at this, you know, kinda view to this--in conquering cancer can be like dealing with polio and yeah, we're gonna nail it down one day and that's it. It turns out to be much more stubborn, much more complicated.

 

Dubois:

 

So, you experienced M.D. Anderson as both as an author and as a patient. Was it hard for you to draw the line between objectively looking at the history and telling the story and also, you know, your experience that you had first hand as being a patient that was treated here, was that difficult?

 

Olson:

 

But it was a challenge at times. I came at this having had a very, very positive experienced at M.D. Anderson personally even though I have my arm amputated here. The treatment I got was just I think superb. So I came to the project already biased. And at times, I had to kinda make sure that I step back a little bit when I might needed to take more critical look at something. Another problem, believe it or not, is that in the history since I the people that treated me, I tended to give them or wanted to give them more attention than others, okay. So I had been little more detached.

 

Dubois:

 

It's paid back time.

 

Olson:

 

That's right, yeah! And then I got--when this brain cancer developed, I had to deal with some depression in my own life about it and had a hard time for a while there dealing with the disease myself and then reading and writing about it all day long. That was tough for a while though.

 

Dubois:

So, I have a couple of questions for Dr. Mendelsohn. First, you know, the obvious question is why do you think it's important for M.D. Anderson to tell this history, but secondly it would be wonderful if you could give us, share us with us a little bit about your vision for the future given that we have this 65 year history, where is the cancer field going and what is the next book can you tell us about that's gonna be written in the future?

 

Mendelsohn:

 

Well, those are great questions! First, let me say that there's been a lot written about cancer and what I think is special about this book for the public and for the people that are in the field is it really shows how people have to work together to solve problems and how surprises occur and the science of developing new treatments is a very exciting area that isn't talk about very much. There's a lot to talk about on how to discover a double helix or how to clone genes. There's very little written about how do you decide what's the right therapy, and how do you do the experiments to find the right therapy, and in this book it's just chockfull of stories about that, about people working together and failing sometimes and making breakthroughs at other times and the impacted has on the lives of the people that participate in the experiments, the patients. So, it gives a view of what cancer research is all about that I think is very exciting for the public. Now, the question of, what is the future hold? It's always fun to speculate. But I think, most people in the cancer field today are ready to predict that whereas, let's say in pneumonia and tuberculosis were the most common causes of death when our grandmothers were alive and our age and our grandparents. Today, cancer and heart diseases are the two most important diseases to worry about in terms of our longevity. I think we're gonna make enough progress in cancer so that it's gonna drop down on a list. We'll never get rid of it. Now has that gonna happen? Well first of all, we're gonna take the knowledge we already have and apply it. One third of all cancer deaths would go away if we all quit smoking. I have to say that over and over again 'cause it's so simple to say. You don't have to build any more hospital beds or train any more doctors if we all quits smoking. One third of all cancer deaths would go away and it would infect heart disease and emphysema and whole lot of other things too. So, prevention is gonna become more and more important as the public begins to take accountability for their own health and then early diagnosis is getting better and better. Finally, treatments are getting better and the kinds of treatments we're developing that Dr. Olson just referred to are targeting the genes in the molecules that are abnormal in the cancer cell. The way antibiotics target which abnormal in a germ, and antibiotics have been very successful. So, we predict in the future that we're gonna have better therapies, chemotherapies but in new kind of chemotherapy that targets the molecular and genetic abnormalities that are causing the disease and it will achieve even greater speed in curing the disease.

 

Dubois:

That's exciting. Dr. Olson, what is the history of M.D. Anderson communicate to our patients and their families and the healthy community that may need cancer care in the future as just has John talked about?

 

Olson:

 

I think one thing I wanted to convey on the book is a little unusual as a history book, and that my own personal experience has woven into it in different places. But I--in my experience here has been, you know, when I was first diagnosed, 1981, with a soft tissues sarcoma. I was treated for--the surgery and radiation that recurred in 1984. I came back for more surgery and more radiation therapy. Recurred again the next year and I had an excision by--little excision of the tumor but it came back in '87 and I had more treatment and the amputation. And then brain cancer came in 2000. I had radiation and chemotherapy and surgery and so on. So, I've have been at this for 28 years now as a patient here on and off many times. And--

 

Dubois:

 

That's incredible.

 

Olson:

 

--well, I think, the story here I think is there is optimism in being a cancer patient and at being at an institutional like, you know like M.D. Anderson. And I think the message with M.D. Anderson is hope. Okay, personally for me and for everybody else who's gonna come here in the future.

 

Dubois:

 

So for both of you guys, we're about ready to wrap this up and just--if you have any thoughts that you like to leave with the audience, you know, about the history, about the future, or about the culture that we have here. I think M.D. Anderson is a very special place and what I hear over and over again when people step into the building, get in to the elevator, they feel like they're immediately at home and at the right place to get their treatment for cancer?

 

Olson:

So I think you said it all. I think we very much feel and talk about here treating the cancer and caring for the patient and patient's family and they're both very important. And we'll leave no stone unturned looking for a way to improve a patient's chances. So when standard therapy fails, we're very proud and we have the largest clinical research program in the world making available. Experimental therapies, if a patient is interested. And since one third of patients don't even live with 5 years with cancer, that means one third of the people in this country to get cancer are gonna reach a point where experimental therapy might become important and we're very proud to have that available.

 

Dubois:

 

Well, thank you so much both of you for speaking with Cancer Newsline today. Making cancer history is a terrific read and a great reminder of how far we've come in our knowledge and understanding of cancer. If anyone is interested in purchasing a copy of "Making Cancer history," please go to amazon.com or visit one of our M.D. Anderson gift shops. Thank you for tuning in today to Cancer Newsline this week and be sure to check out another new edition next week. This is Dr. Ray Dubois, Provost and Executive Vice President for M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

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