One of the great privileges of my job is talking to grateful patients and their families. It is hard to imagine anything more rewarding than hearing a heart-felt thank you from a patient impacted by cancer who has returned to a healthy, happy and productive life due to progress made possible by the research being conducted at Holden and delivery of state-of-the-art cancer care. Such conversations help many of us keep going despite the many challenges we face working in such a difficult field. In addition, support from grateful patients and their families provides us with philanthropic resources that are vital to accelerating progress in areas as diverse as pilot research projects, recruitment of new faculty, education for oncology nurses and patient amenities. Such grateful patients are vital partners in our efforts to reduce the burden of cancer even further.
Well, on second thought, I said “it is hard to imagine anything more rewarding,” when in truth I can imagine something more rewarding. That would be knowing that our efforts had prevented cancer from occurring in the first place. Solid research indicates reducing use of tobacco, encouraging healthy diet and exercise, increasing rates of HPV vaccination, limiting both natural and artificial exposure to harmful UV rays, testing and mitigating radon exposure and helping patients obtain screening for both pre-cancerous lesions and early cancers all contribute to reducing the burden of cancer by preventing it from occurring in the first place.
Cancer prevention and cancer therapy are alike in that we have considerable progress in both areas, yet there is much more we need to do. However, cancer prevention and cancer therapy are very different in that cancer prevention is unlikely to lead to grateful patients saying thank you. Individuals whose cervical cancer was prevented by the HPV vaccine or lung cancer avoided because they paid attention to anti-smoking messages they heard as teenagers are not cancer patients and go about their lives without ever knowing the impact cancer prevention efforts had on their lives. You and I, as well as our loved ones, may well have benefited from such cancer prevention efforts.
So, next time you think about our past, current and future efforts to reduce the burden of cancer, think about the vital role cancer prevention plays in that effort. If you see a scientist, physician or public health worker dedicated to cancer prevention, give them a big thank you. You never know whether you owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Those of us who are fortunate enough to not have been diagnosed with cancer should consider ourselves “grateful non-patients” who, due to cancer prevention efforts, did not develop cancer in the first place. Finally, support for ongoing cancer prevention efforts from both grateful patients and grateful non-patients is needed to assure we succeed in tipping the balance towards more grateful non-patients in the years ahead. It truly is hard to imagine anything more rewarding than that.