When my turn in line comes, I will have no hesitancy about rolling up my sleeve and getting a shot in the arm. My position on the benefit and potential risk of receiving one of the new mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines is based on over 30 years of studying how we can use the immune system to treat cancer. I’d like to summarize how this experience has influenced my perspective on taking the vaccine.
It’s Thanksgiving morning and I am sitting quietly at our kitchen table while my wife Teresa bakes some bread. That is about the only thing usual about the holiday this year. No big turkey. No happy sounds from children and grandchildren running about. We will be Zooming with the family shortly which is better than nothing, but certainly not the same as reading a book with a grandchild on your lap in front of the fireplace. Nevertheless, we, like everyone else, are doing what we can to make the best of the current circumstances and look forward to the day, hopefully in the not too distant future, when we can be together again in person.
I often start talks I give on cancer research with a discussion of the war on cancer. To be honest, I have a very mixed relationship with this metaphor.
The concept of the war on cancer was first popularized in 1971 by President Richard Nixon and used in a more nuanced manner more recently by Vice President Biden. This metaphor emphasizes how working together against a formidable foe will improve our lives and those of future generations. It speaks to the need for immense dedication, focus, sacrifice and persistence to achieve a noble goal. The war on cancer implies a need for teamwork by multiple sectors of society, including civilly minded citizens, government, academia and the private sector. It also implies there is an identifiable enemy, and that total victory is possible. This last point is where the metaphor of the war on cancer starts to break down. In 1971 our knowledge of cancer was quite primitive. We thought of cancer as a single disease where a single approach to victory was possible. We now know that cancer is not a single disease but multiple diseases. Indeed, every cancer is unique and personalized approaches are required for success. In other words, in the war on cancer, there is no single and simple way to target and defeat the enemy.
Last month I gave a presentation on cancer medicine and cancer research to a sophisticated group of non-scientists and was asked to predict what cancer medicine would look like in 25 years. This made me think back on a talk I gave in the late 1990s on that very topic. Thankfully, I no longer have the slides I used for that talk! I do recall a couple of items that were a focus of that presentation – one where I missed the mark and another where I was more on target.
I heard a talk on leadership during a commencement address many years ago that has stuck with me. The esteemed speaker, a nationally known, highly successful businessman, spoke about what it took to be a successful leader. One theme of his talk was that successful leaders should not hesitate to switch jobs. His approach throughout his own successful career was to “build it for 3 years, run it for 3 years, then move on.”
A key role of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center is to collect and provide information about cancer that our researchers can use to find better ways of reducing the burden of cancer. This includes information on underlying genetics and lifestyle of patients. It includes analysis of cancers removed from patients so we can evaluate the genetic, molecular and cellular makeup of the cancer. Finally, it includes information on the response to cancer therapy including clinical response, side effects of therapy and quality of life. Given the complexity of cancer, robust information from a large number of patients is needed so we can conduct research that helps us determine what is best for each individual patient. Doing such research requires a partnership between researchers and patients who are willing to fill out surveys, provide blood samples and give us permission to use their cancer tissue and clinical information in research .
This blog is not an appropriate place for me to express my personal political opinions. On the other hand, recent political events could well influence the Holden mission of reducing the burden of cancer for those we serve. I therefore decided it would be appropriate for me to use this forum to discuss the potential impact of current national politics on cancer research.
We are all too aware of recent political happenings such as the government shutdown, the resulting short-term continuing resolution that reopened the government (at least for now) and the major issues of ongoing political contention. We know recent haggling has been accompanied by political name calling, finger pointing and what seems like an endless discussion of who got a “win” and who got a “loss.” It comes across as if we are keeping score in a game rather than trying to have a positive impact on people’s lives. Indeed, the discussion seems to be based on the assumption that political deliberations are a “zero sum game.” If one side is to win, the other side needs to lose. And, if decisions are viewed in this manner, no matter how bad a politician appears, that politician still gets a “win” if their opponent can be made to look worse.
Last month, I attended back-to-back meetings in Washington D.C. Both had a cancer focus, but otherwise it appeared there was little in common. The first was a meeting of the Society for the Immunotherapy of Cancer where the latest scientific and clinical advances in cancer immunotherapy were discussed. The second was a meeting of the National Cancer Policy Forum that included a workshop where we discussed approaches to helping cancer patients navigate the complexities of the health care system.
It is difficult for all of us to identify and address, on our own, those areas where we should and can do a better job. Sometimes dealing with day to day challenges limits our ability to step back and look at the big picture. Sometimes we might see an issue that needs to be addressed but hesitate to do so because of concerns about unintended consequences we know or suspect might result from implementing a solution. Sometimes we might not realize there is a better way. Sometimes we might see a better way, but are simply unable to implement the needed change on our own. This certainly is true for a complex organization such as a comprehensive cancer center where we are working to reduce the burden of cancer across the spectrum of clinical care, research and education – where opportunities and challenges are ever present and ever changing.
Achieving our potential requires we ask ourselves whether we are we doing our best to…
- Identify and support the most promising cancer research.
- Recruit and retain the best faculty, staff, students and volunteers.
- Bring advances from the research lab to where they help patients as quickly as possible.
- Provide state-of-the-art, personalized clinical care and service to every patient.
- Educate the next generation of cancer researchers and caregivers.
- Work within our community and across the state to disseminate advances so they help as many people as possible.
- Collaborate optimally with other units within our own institution (departments, colleges, the hospital, etc).
- Collaborate optimally with outside institutions (referring physicians and medical centers, other cancer centers, the National Cancer Institute, etc).
- Structure our own efforts to be as efficient and effective as possible to facilitate our ability to do all of these things well.
In addition to self-reflection and internal discussion, it helps to ask outsiders to take a fresh look and advise us on how to improve. One of the most forward-thinking aspects of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer Centers Program is the requirement that every cancer center have a yearly visit from an External Advisory Board (EAB) composed of experts from other cancer centers. Making optimal use of an EAB requires the hosting cancer center be totally open. We do not try to hide or paper over our major challenges when our EAB visits. Instead, we put them front and center. For the EAB to do its job and help us improve, it needs to be highly critical. As Oscar Wilde said “true friends stab you in the front.” Having an EAB say “keep it up, you are doing an excellent job,” just doesn’t cut it. We need the EAB to tell us how we can do better. Our EAB will be visiting next month and our presentations to them will include a discussion of what we are doing with a particular focus on where we feel we can improve. We will put down our armor, show them our soft underbelly, and say “hit me with your best shot.”
I have the privilege of serving on the EABs of nine other NCI-designated cancer centers and chairing five of them. I have no doubt participating on these boards helps me do my job at Holden more effectively. I get to see how other cancer centers handle particularly difficult issues. Sometimes I return home with a new idea of how we can address a gnarly challenge. Just as commonly, I return home after seeing a cancer center’s approach to dealing with a problem, grateful for the team we have at Iowa and the solution we have found to a problem that another center is struggling to address.
Sometimes it feels a bit awkward being on an EAB when I beat up on my colleagues and friends, and am rewarded for doing so by a nice meal and a sincere “thank you.” When our EAB visits next month, I am sure they will return the favor. I will say “hit me with your best shot,” and when they happily (and hopefully ruthlessly) comply, I will feed them and express my deepest appreciation.
Earlier this week, I was catching up on my computer at home when I received an e-mail notifying us that we had received a couple of important accreditations (more on these below). That got me thinking about writing a blog about the process of obtaining such accreditations. By chance, my eyes landed on an old book on my bookshelf – The Agony and the Ecstasy – a novel by Irving Stone about the life of Michelangelo. The title reflects how the artist’s life was divided into the agony of dealing with the politics and society of the day, and the ecstasy of completing his incredible masterpieces. Once it got into my brain, I just couldn’t shake the silly metaphor of linking the process of obtaining accreditations with painting the Sistine Chapel. So, despite the totally understandable puzzled expressions on the faces of my colleagues when they first heard of my plans for this blog, here we go…