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Individualizing “The Fight Against Cancer”

You have heard it countless times, “The War on Cancer.” President Nixon announced it. The National Cancer Institute has spearheaded what TV and radio commercials always talk about as “the fight against cancer.” Singular. But we really need to start thinking about it as a plural.  Wars on cancer. Fights against cancer. Taking it one step further, we need to see each person’s fight as an individual battle.  Not just individualized to the patient’s spirit or age or sense of hope, but individualized to his or her particular biology, matched up with the specific cancer and available treatments. That is the nature of “personalized medicine” applied to cancer. We’ve been talking about it for a few years around here, but what’s exciting now is that even more super smart people in the cancer scientific community are devoting themselves to it.

I met two people like that today near the research labs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Without giving too much away (they’ve got big plans), these two hematologist-oncologists, with many advanced degrees between them and decades of experience, are trying to build something really big that could lengthen lives and save many too.

What they’re trying to do is Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Andrew's Blog*

Counter-Intuitive Results: Several Cancer Screening Tests Don’t Improve Health Outcomes

Nearly forty years ago, President Richard Nixon famously declared a “War on Cancer” by signing the National Cancer Act of 1971. Like the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program that was then landing men on the Moon, and the ongoing (and eventually successful) World Health Organization-led initiative to eradicate smallpox from the face of the Earth, the “War on Cancer” was envisioned as a massive, all-out research and treatment effort. We would bomb cancer into submission with powerful regimens of chemotherapy, experts promised, or, failing that, we would invest in early detection of cancers so that they could be more easily cured at earlier stages.

It was in the spirit of the latter that the National Cancer Institute launched the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer (PLCO) Screening trial in 1992. This massive study, which eventually enrolled more than 150,000 men and women between age 55 and 74, was designed to test the widespread belief that screening and early detection of the most common cancers could improve morbidity and mortality in the long term. Not a few influential voices suggested that the many millions of dollars invested in running the trial might be better spent on programs to increase the use of these obviously-effective tests in clinical practice.

They were wrong. As of now, the PLCO study is 0-for-2. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

Cancer And Science-Based Medicine: Skepticism Vs. Nihilism

Last Friday, Mark Crislip posted an excellent deconstruction of a very disappointing article that appeared in the most recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer (SI), the flagship publication of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). I say “disappointing,” because I was disappointed to see SI publish such a biased, poorly thought out article, apparently for the sake of controversy. I’m a subscriber myself, and in general enjoy reading the magazine, although of late I must admit that I don’t always read each issue cover to cover the way I used to do. Between work, grant writing, blogging, and other activities, my outside reading, even of publications I like, has declined. Perhaps SI will soon find itself off my reading list.

Be that as it may, I couldn’t miss the article that so irritated Mark, because it irritated me as well. There it was, emblazoned prominently on the cover of the March/April 2011 issue: “Seven Deadly Medical Hypotheses.” I flipped through the issue to the article to find out that this little gem was written by someone named Michael Spector, M.D. A tinge of familiarity going through my brain, I tried to think where I had heard that name before.

And then I remembered.

Dr. Spector, it turns out, first got on my nerves about a year ago, when he wrote an article for the January/February 2010 issue of SI entitled “The War on Cancer: A Progress Report for Skeptics.” I remember at that time being irritated by the article and wanting to pen a discussion of the points in that article but don’t recall why I never did. It was probably a combination of the fact that SI doesn’t publish its articles online until some months have passed and perhaps my laziness about having to manually transcribe with my own little typing fingers any passages of text that I wanted to cite. By the time the article was available online, I forgot about it and never came back to it — until now. I should therefore, right here, right now, publicly thank Mark (and, of course, Dr. Spector) for providing me the opportunity to revisit that article in the context of piling on, so to speak, Dr. Spector’s most recent article. After all, Deadly Hypothesis Seven (as Dr. Spector so cheesily put it) is:

From a cancer patient population and public health perspective, cancer chemotherapy (chemo) has been a major medical advance.

Dr. Spector then takes this opportunity to cite copiously from his 2010 article, sprinkling “(Spector, 2010)” throughout the text like powdered sugar on a cupcake. There’s the opening I needed to justify revisiting an article that’s more than a year old! And what fantastic timing, too, hot on the heals of my post from a couple of weeks ago entitled “Why Haven’t We Cured Cancer Yet?Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

A Science-Based View Of The Complexity Of Cancer

[Recently] I participated in a panel discussion at the Northeast Conference of Science and Skepticism (NECSS) with John Snyder, Kimball Atwood, and Steve Novella, who also reported on the conference. What I mentioned to some of the attendees is that I had managed to combine NECSS with a yearly ritual that I seldom miss, namely the yearly meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting.

There are two huge cancer meetings every year — AACR and the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO). AACR is the meeting dedicated to basic and translational research. ASCO, as the word “clinical” in its name implies, is devoted mainly to clinical research.

Personally, being a translational researcher myself and a surgeon, I tend to prefer the AACR meeting over ASCO, not because ASCO isn’t valuable, but mainly because ASCO tends to be devoted mostly to medical oncology and chemotherapy, which are not what I do as a surgeon. Each meeting draws between 10,000 to 15,000 or even more clinicians and researchers dedicated to the eradication of cancer. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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