The Cancer History Project
By Cancer History Project
The Cancer History Project is an initiative by The Cancer Letter, oncology's longest-running news publication. The Cancer History Project’s archives are available online at CancerHistoryProject.com.
The Cancer History ProjectNov 10, 2023
How George Santos and Al Owens’s early Cytoxan studies led to standard-of-care therapy in BMT
George Santos, founder of Johns Hopkins University Bone Marrow Transplantation Program, pioneered many of the innovations used in bone marrow transplantation that are relevant today—but he didn’t get nearly as much credit as others working in the field.
Richard J. Jones, professor of oncology and medicine, director of the Bone Marrow Transplantation Program, and co-director, Hematologic Malignancies Program, at The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, spoke with the Cancer History Project about George Santos's legacy.
“Much of what we’re currently doing in bone marrow transplant internationally was developed by George,” Jones said.
A transcript of this conversation is available here.
Judith L. Pearson on how Mary Lasker made the National Cancer Act happen
In this episode, Judith L. Pearson, best-selling author and founder of A 2nd Act, speaks with Alexandria Carolan, associate editor with the Cancer History Project.
Delving deep into Mary Lasker’s role as the “catalytic agent” who worked behind the scenes through proxies to accomplish the goal of curing cancer, Pearson wrote “Crusade to Heal America: The Remarkable Life of Mary Lasker.”
“She just wanted to light the fire and then wanted everybody else to go to work to make it happen,” Pearson said to The Cancer Letter. “She would give them whatever resources were necessary, including some of her own money, to make sure that the right congressmen and senators held positions got reelected, or got elected, and then went into the appropriate committees.”
A transcript of this recording appears on the Cancer History Project.
Chris Lundy had one week to live; 52 years later, he is the longest living BMT recipient at the Hutch
At age 18, during basic training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, Chris Lundy slipped and broke his wrist.
At the hospital, the doctors set his wrist and ran some blood tests. What Lundy thought would be a simple visit turned into a series of months-long hospital stays.
Lundy was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, and his doctors sent him to Seattle, where he would become a patient of Donnall Thomas. Thomas would share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990 discoveries concerning organ and cell transplantation in the treatment of human disease.
Today, Lundy is the longest living recipient of an allogeneic transplant for aplastic anemia at Fred Hutch Cancer Center. He received the bone marrow transplant that saved his life in 1971.
In this interview, Chris and his brother, Jerry Lundy, speak with Dr. Deborah Doroshow, an oncologist at the Tisch Cancer Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Doroshow, who is also a historian of medicine, is a member of the editorial board of the Cancer History Project.
Who can fill Shelley Earp's shoes at UNC Lineberger?
What does it take to run an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for 22 years? And what does it takes to recruit a successor?
In this episode, Shelton “Shelley” Earp talks about his plans to step down as director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center effective in June 2024. He is joined by Norman "Ned" Sharpless, former director of UNC Lineberger as well as former NCI director and former acting FDA commissioner. Sharpless chairs the committee charged with finding Earp’s successor.
Earp has served as director between 1997 and 2018 and then again from 2018 on, both preceding and succeeding Sharpless in the UNC job.
This is a special edition of the Cancer History Project podcast focused a little more on the present—and the future.
Read more here: https://cancerletter.com/conversation-with-the-cancer-letter/20230908_1/
John Laszlo: Finding the cure for childhood leukemia and writing a book about it
John Laszlo, professor emeritus at Duke University Medical Center and former national vice president for research at the American Cancer Society, speaks with the Cancer History Project’s Alex Carolan and Paul Goldberg about his life, career, and his authoritative book, “The Cure of Childhood Leukemia: Into the Age of Miracles.”
When Laszlo, 92, joined the Acute Leukemia Service at NCI in 1956, the cure for childhood leukemia seemed beyond reach. He worked directly with Emil “Tom” Frei, and Emil J Freireich—early researchers and doctors of childhood leukemia at NCI.
Laszlo’s book is based on taped interviews of doctors and scientists whose work led to the cure of childhood leukemia. It is an essential primary source for anyone interested in oncology and its history, and is now available for free as a digital download on the Cancer History Project.
In 1937, Laszlo’s family fled Vienna as Jewish refugees. His mother, a psychiatrist who trained with Anna Freud, discovered she had breast cancer on the SS Île de France while the family journeyed to America. She died two years later.
His father, Daniel Laszlo, a physician who specialized in cardiovascular physiology, found a job in cancer research at Mount Sinai Hospital. He went on to study folate antagonists in mice—though folate antagonists hadn’t been characterized yet. The untested regimen was administered against his recommendation to none other than Babe Ruth.
A transcript of this recording is available on the Cancer History Project.
How CAR T cell therapy resulted in a complete remission in two subtypes of lymphoma
Marcus Humphrey, who was diagnosed with two subtypes of lymphoma in 2021, and his wife Mary Humphrey speak with Dr. Deborah Doroshow, an oncologist at the Tisch Cancer Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Doroshow, who is also a historian of medicine, is a member of the editorial board of the Cancer History Project and is guest editor during National Cancer Survivor Month this June.
Humphrey sought treatment at Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center for a swelling that had grown exponentially on the right side of his neck. Two regimens of chemotherapy failed. Marcus Humphrey’s oncologist later said it was the worst case of lymphoma he had ever seen.
Humphrey was almost out of options—and his heavy tumor burden made doctors wary of CAR T-cell therapy. They weighed the risks and went for it.
After receiving treatment with CAR T cell therapy, and managing the side effects of neurotoxicity, cytokine release syndrome, and mobility issues—Humphrey’s scans are clear. He’s vacationing in Italy now, and was overlooking the Adriatic sea with his wife Mary during this conversation, available on the Cancer History Project.
Hagop Kantarjian on changing the course of leukemias from mostly incurable to mostly curable
In this episode, 2023 David Karnofsky Memorial Award winner Hagop Kantarjian discusses his long career developing novel therapies for several types of leukemia.
“This is why I consider that choosing leukemia was the best decision in my life,” Kantarjian said to The Cancer Letter. “Because within the span of one professional lifetime, we were able to change the full course of all the leukemias from mostly incurable to mostly curable.”
Reviewing his extensive career in leukemia research, Kantarjian discusses the high cost of drug prices, and his optimism that the U.S. will overcome healthcare disparities, and the many lessons he learned from his mentor, Emil J Freireich.
“It's very important to continue to challenge the standards, the accepted standards, and to try to create new knowledge and innovate outside the general herd mentality that exists at any point in time,” Kantarjian said.
Kantarjian spoke with Jacquelyn Cobb, reporter with The Cancer Letter. A transcript of the conversation appears on The Cancer History Project.
Fred Appelbaum on the genesis of bone marrow transplantation and Don Thomas’s Nobel-prize-winning discoveries
In this episode, Frederick Appelbaum, executive vice president, professor in the Clinical Research Division, and Metcalfe Family/Frederick Appelbaum Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, speaks with Alexandria Carolan, associate editor with the Cancer History Project.
Delving deep into Thomas’s role in discovering bone marrow transplantation and its role in curing hematologic cancers, Appelbaum, who became Thomas’s mentee and collaborator, wrote “Living Medicine: Don Thomas, Marrow Transplantation, and the Cell Therapy Revolution.”
“If it hadn't been told, and if the story had been lost to history, I just thought that would be a tragedy,” Appelbaum said to The Cancer Letter. “We've gone from a setting where Don and just one or two other people were the only ones that thought marrow transplantation was even possible in the 1950s, to today, where there are 100,000 transplants performed worldwide every year and 40 million people have signed up and registered to be potential stem cell donors.”
A transcript of this recording appears on the Cancer History Project.
Patient stories: Sandra Hillburn on receiving a pathbreaking treatment for glioblastoma multiforme
This episode features an interview with Sandra Hillburn, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2006, and Dr. Deborah Doroshow, an oncologist at the Tisch Cancer Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Doroshow, who is also a historian of medicine, is a member of the editorial board of the Cancer History Project.
When Hillburn was first diagnosed, she was given two to three months to live. Then, she sought treatment at Duke Cancer Institute, where she underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Afterward, she began receiving an experimental CMV vaccine treatment.
The treatment worked. Today, she continues to receive the vaccine once every six months.
A transcript of this recording appears on the Cancer History Project.
Women’s History Month panel: Breast cancer in the White House
This episode features a recording of a March 7 Women’s History Month panel on the topic of Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, and how their cancer diagnoses impacted a nation.
The panel was introduced by Monica Bertagnolli, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, and moderated by Stacy Wentworth, MD, assistant professor of radiation oncology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Medical director of cancer survivorship at Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Health Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Bertagnolli and Wentworth were joined by Mirelle Luecke, MA, PhD, Supervisory museum curator of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, and Karen Tumulty, MBA, Deputy editorial page editor and columnist at The Washington Post.
A transcript of this recording appears on the Cancer History Project.
Richard Silvera on bridging advocacy and research through the Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program
In this conversation, Richard Silvera, assistant professor of infectious disease at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, speaks with Robert A. Winn, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and guest editor of the Cancer History Project during Black History Month.
Silvera is a recipient of a grant from the Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program, which was established in 2020 by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation.
In this episode Silvera discusses his work caring for patients with anal cancer in the Bronx, and how doctors can gain the trust of underserved populations."
None of this work happens in isolation, but I don’t want to just be one researcher on an island by myself. I want to be part of a community of researchers doing this work," Silvera said.
A transcript of this recording appears on The Cancer Letter.
MSK’s Selwyn Vickers: Fighting for health equity to improve care—for everyone
Vickers: “We’ve been seen as exclusive and selected. I want to broaden that aperture for the organization.”
In this conversation, Selwyn Vickers, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, speaks with Robert Winn, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and guest editor of the Cancer History Project during Black History Month.
Vickers overviews his early career, how to tackle health disparities, and his plants for expanding access to MSK.
A transcript of the episode is available here.
Otis Brawley & Robert Winn: the killing of Tyre Nichols & power dynamics in policing and health care
In this conversation, Robert Winn and Otis Brawley discuss the structural biases and racism that are present in law enforcement as well as in medicine after the killing of Tyre Nichols by police.
Otis Brawley is Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and co-editor of the Cancer History Project; and Robert Winn is director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and guest editor of the Cancer History Project during Black History Month.
In this episode, Brawley and Winn identify the racial and class power dynamics in American society, and why physicians and healthcare professionals have a responsibility to reflect on the problems in policing, and identify areas where these problems are also present in health care.
Brawley and Winn have had their own potentially deadly encounters with police—Brawley was thrown to the ground and held at gunpoint for standing in the garage of his own home; Winn was thrown to the ground and held at gunpoint for walking toward his own car.
A transcript of the episode is available here.
Kay Dickersin: How NBCC started Project LEAD to teach science to breast cancer patients
Kay Dickersin, MA, PhD, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is one of the early leaders of the National Breast Cancer Coalition.
In this interview, Dickersin discusses her breast cancer diagnosis at age 34, and her frustration that, at the time, most support groups seemed to focus on how to fix your makeup or your wig.
Dickersin, along with Marsha Oakley, a breast cancer survivor and nurse in Baltimore, decided to start their own advocacy group called Arm-in-Arm. This group addressed the difficult aspects of treatment and produced newsletters that were lighthearted in nature. Members of Arm-in-Arm called their jokes about their circumstances whistling past the graveyard.
Then, the group received an invitation from the Breast Cancer Coalition to attend the first meeting. From there, Dickersin became one of the group’s leaders, chairing NBCC’s research task force.
Dickersin was one of the architects of Project LEAD, NBCC’s initiative to educate advocates about the science of breast cancer. In this conversation she recounts Project LEAD’s beginnings and its impact.
A transcript of the episode is available here.
Panel: The three comprehensive cancer centers that set the model for a nation
Directors of the first three NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers are learning from the past, starting with the National Cancer Act, and mapping an equitable future for oncology.
On July 29, 2021, the Cancer History Project convened panelists Candace S. Johnson, president and CEO of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Craig B. Thompson, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Peter WT Pisters, president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, for a two hour Zoom session moderated by co-editor Otis W. Brawley.
A full transcript and video of the panel are available here.
Craig Jordan on discovering tamoxifen’s role in breast cancer and a lifetime of innovation
Craig Jordan was one of the first researchers to analyze and describe tamoxifen’s preventive properties. His discoveries changed the face of breast cancer prevention and treatment.
His career is storied. He received the Karnofsky award for his work as the father of tamoxifen, is a member of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, met and corresponded with Princess Diana while he led the breast cancer program at the Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center, and served in the British military as captain of the Intelligence Service while undergoing his doctoral studies.
Jordan’s book “Tamoxifen Tales,” outlines the journey of discovery which led to the enormous contribution that antiestrogens, especially tamoxifen, have made to improve treatment as well as the prevention of breast cancer.
A transcript of this conversation appears here.
Robin Scheffler on viral oncology’s complicated path
Robin Scheffler is an associate professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He is also the author of A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine, and a historian of the modern biological and biomedical sciences and their intersections with developments in American history.
In this episode, Scheffler overviews the history of viral oncology, beginning with the idea of cancer as a contagion.
Scheffler then delves into historical controversies surrounding the study of cancer vaccines, as well as the beginning of NCI’s viral oncology program—which received millions in funding after the signing of the National Cancer Act.
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Dwight Tosh, the 17th patient at St. Jude, on surviving lymphoma in 1962
Dwight Tosh had grown so weak that he was unable to walk. Still, doctors at the rural Arkansas hospital—where he lay in bed for weeks in 1962—were unable to diagnose him.
“My athletic body had been reduced to just a shell of an individual, looked like you’d just taken the skin and stretched it over my bones, just wasn’t much left of me,” Tosh, 73, a Republican state representative in Arkansas, said to Doroshow. “And still, the doctors couldn’t figure out or diagnose what the problem was.”
Tosh, only 13 at the time, wasn’t getting any better. He was running fevers of 107 and 108, and there didn’t seem to be a solution.
“And then a huge knot came up on my neck and a biopsy of that night revealed that I had Hodgkins’s lymphoma,” he said.
Doctors told his family he had two weeks left to live, but Tosh and his parents never quite believed that.
Tosh was the 17th patient admitted to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the first patient at St. Jude to become a 60 year survivor. He spoke with Dr. Deborah Doroshow, assistant professor of medicine, hematology, and medical oncology at the Tisch Cancer Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who is also a historian of medicine and a member of the Cancer History Project editorial board.
A transcript of their conversation is available here.
Jerry Yates on building a cancer center in a rural environment—Vermont
In July, the Cancer History Project is focusing on the founders of cancer centers. In this conversation, Jerome Yates tells us how he helped build Vermont Cancer Center.
For Yates, a Joe Simone quote comes to his mind when reflecting on his days in Vermont: “when you’ve seen one cancer center, you’ve seen one cancer center.”
University of Vermont received a planning grant in 1974 to develop a cancer center in Vermont at a time when funds were flowing from NCI. Yates also received a rehabilitation grant from NCI for patients with advanced cancer—which helped develop a clinical infrastructure for the future cancer center.
University of Vermont received its core grant in 1978.
Read more here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/jerry-yates-on-building-a-cancer-center-in-a-rural-environment-vermont/
Cancer Survivors Month: Dave Boule confronted polycythemia vera with an accountant’s consistency
This is the third installment of the Cancer History Project’s series in honor of Cancer Survivors Month. Dr. Deborah Doroshow, Cancer History Project guest editor during the month of June, conducted the following interview with Dave Boule, who was diagnosed with polycythemia vera in 2006.
Soon after Boule was diagnosed, he had a hunch that there were better treatment options than the phlebotomies his New York doctor was treating him with. Boule did his research, and stumbled upon studies written by Dr. Richard T. Silver, who is now director emeritus of the Richard T. Silver MD Myeloproliferative Neoplasms Center.
Silver’s studies demonstrated that interferon would be the best treatment for his disease. Since then, Boule has undergone successful treatment with interferon, which he still takes today.
His advice to newly diagnosed patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms: seek out a doctor who specializes in the disease.
A transcript of this episode is available here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/dave-boule-confronted-polycythemia-vera-with-an-accountants-consistency/
Cancer Survivors Month: How Beth Carner went from six weeks left to live with stage 4 colon cancer to complete remission
This is the second installment of the Cancer History Project’s series in honor of Cancer Survivors Month. Dr. Deborah Doroshow, Cancer History Project guest editor during the month of June, conducted the following interview with Beth Carner, a colon cancer patient who is now in remission.
At 25, Elizabeth Carner was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Thus began a months-long odyssey of six hour drives to Mayo Clinic, where Carner received chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
The treatments and cancer were painful and physically exhausting. At one point, she was given six weeks to live.
Then, a doctor at Mayo told Carner about a clinical trial she was a candidate for. When she arrived at the desk of Richard Goldberg, a GI oncologist, Carner was so weak she could barely hold her head up. Within 2 to 3 months of starting the drug, which would become known as Keytruda, or pembrolizumab, she could tell the drug was working.
After a year of being on the trial, doctors didn’t find any evidence of cancer. Carner remains in complete remission—eight years from when she was diagnosed.
An edited transcript of this conversation appears here.
Cancer Survivors Month: Judy Orem on being diagnosed with CML in 1995
This month, Cancer History Project guest editor Deborah Doroshow, MD, PhD is conducting several oral histories with people who have experienced cancer—in a preliminary attempt to begin to capture some of those experiences.
Although sources regarding the experiences of scientists and clinicians are often readily available, sources documenting the patient experience—a topic which historians of medicine like myself are deeply committed to elucidating—tend to be more difficult to find and are less frequently saved by archivists.
Doroshow’s first oral history is with Judy Orem, a participant on the phase I clinical trial of (Imatinib), or Gleevec.
While the story of Gleevec’s discovery and clinical testing is well known, Judy’s narrative provides a new perspective into the experience of being one of the first people to participate in a clinical trial of one of the earliest targeted therapies in hematology and oncology.
A transcript of this podcast is available here.
Bill Haney on the making of “Jim Allison: Breakthrough”
Jim Allison hadn’t been back to his hometown of Alice, TX, in 40 years when Bill Haney asked him to return there during the filming of “Jim Allison: Breakthrough.”
“I think, as is often the case with people who I make films with—it’s a voyage for discovery for them too,” said Haney, director, writer, and a producer of the documentary. “I think that Jim walking the streets where he was as a child, and where his brothers lived, and the school that he had been in, and the challenges he had at the school… reconnecting to it, it turned out, I think, to give Jim something, as well as I hope, the viewers something.”
Haney is a filmmaker, inventor, and entrepreneur.
Jim Allison’s personal connection to cancer, in losing his mother to lymphoma when he was young, as well as a brother to prostate cancer—a disease Allison has also survived—made the scientific aspects of “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” shine, Haney said.
“That determined individuality—and in Jim’s case with a sparkle of fun—creates a character that you can spend a lot of time with in Breakthrough,” he said. “That you feel a sense of care and you feel empathy not only for, but you feel empathy from. And so, I don’t think we could have made Breakthrough without Jim and I don’t think we would’ve wanted to.”
Why film a documentary about the development of immunotherapy in cancer?
“At a time when there’s a lot of pessimism about global climate change and income inequality, and immigration challenges, and the nature of democracy in America, for goodness sakes, here’s a really optimistic tale, where something we’ve been trying for 5,000 years to work on we’ve been succeeding,” Haney said.
There aren’t many documentaries about Nobel-winning scientists out there, Haney said.
“I think part of the reason for that is, where do you pitch the science? If you ask Jim—just make it a little simpler—he goes from genius to post doc with 12 years of experience,” Haney said.
Jim Allison helped make “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” work, in part, because he wasn’t concerned with his image on camera, and came across very naturally throughout filming.
“I’ve filmed a lot of folks, and some fantastic people, when the camera shows up, they freeze, they’re not emotionally open, they’re not comfortable in a conversation,” Haney said. “We need to have a journey of common humanity, and, and so when we really decided we were going to stick with this was after we filmed him for the first two, three days.”
On the day Bill Haney wrapped up filming of Jim: Allison: Breakthrough, it was announced that Jim Allison won the Nobel Prize.
“That made us want to accelerate finishing the films, including going to Stockholm and putting this thing in. We made the movie in about a year and that’s a fast schedule for a [documentary], especially for somebody like me, who’s got a couple of other jobs,” Haney said. “We are really happy that we were the number one film on PBS last year in terms of viewers, and I think that’s a good example where Jim winning the Nobel helped. It didn’t change the filmmaking, but it probably changed the footprint of the film.”
Read the transcript here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/bill-haney-making-of-jim-allison-breakthrough/
Panel: Experts propose a health equity action plan
In a panel moderated by Dr. Karen Knudsen, CEO of American Cancer Society, four leaders in oncology proposed an action plan for tackling cancer health disparities and creating health equity.
The panel includes Clifford A. Hudis, CEO, American Society of Clinical Oncology; Executive vice chair, Conquer Cancer Foundation; Chair, CancerLinQ; Chanita Hughes Halbert, Vice chair for research, professor, Department of Population and Public Health Sciences; Associate director for cancer equity, Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Southern California; Amy E. Leader, Associate professor of population science and medical oncology, associate director of community integration, Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center; Public health teaching faculty, College of Population Health, Thomas Jefferson University; Cheryl Willman, Executive director, Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs (nationally and globally); Director, Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center.
A transcript of this panel is available here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/experts-propose-action-plan-on-health-equity-panel/
Panel: International perspectives in U.S. cancer center leadership
In a panel moderated by Dr. Narjust Duma, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, four directors of NCI-designated Cancer Centers discuss their unique perspectives as immigrants—and leaders in oncology. Topics cover their unique pathways to leadership, diversity in medicine, and challenges faced by international medical graduates.
The panel included Dr. Kunle Odunsi, director of University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center; Dr. Peter Pisters, president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; Dr. Leonidas Platanias, director of Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University; and Dr. Cornelia Ulrich, executive director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute.
A transcript of this panel is available here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/international-perspectives-in-u-s-cancer-center-leadership/
Register for our upcoming panel on May 9, “Health equity: Advocacy and access in the community.” https://www.eventbrite.com/e/health-equity-advocacy-and-access-tickets-324240541187
Jerome Yates: “We were like the Rodney Dangerfields of medicine in the late ‘60s.”
Jerome Yates became a cancer doctor during a time when medical oncologists were thought to be what he describes as “the garbage collectors of medicine.”
“The attitude among physician colleagues was, why are you wasting your time doing this? Not only are you wasting your time, but you’re making the patients sicker,” said Yates, 85, a retired oncologist who has practiced and administered research at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, the University of Vermont, NCI and the American Cancer Society. “Some of them get very sick from the chemotherapy, because there are a lot of side effects with the normal tissues.”
During his internship at San Bernardino County Hospital, Yates, then 29, encountered a metastatic testicular cancer patient around his age. The young man was admitted to the hospital with congestive heart failure.
“They were going to let him die,” Yates said to The Cancer Letter. “I said, ‘If he came in and you didn’t know that he had metastatic cancer, you would treat him for his congestive heart failure.’ I convinced the attending. We treated him, and it bought him another four or five months. I thought it was an important four or five months.”
The prevailing attitude toward cancer treatment was depressing—“That if somebody had metastatic disease, had cancer spread around the body, that they were going to die, and why would you want to prolong their agony?”
In 1965, Yates encountered an optimistic article, “Obstacles to the Control of Acute Leukemia” in the CA: Cancer Journal for Clinicians, written by James Holland, an oncologist at Roswell Park Comprehensive Center.
“He said that they were on the pathway to cure acute leukemia. The way it was structured, and the timing—I was taking care of some chronically ill patients—and it just sounded like it was exciting,” he said.
Yates joined Holland at Roswell Park in 1968 and began conducting clinical trials with members of the cooperative group Acute Leukemia Group B cooperative group, the ALGB. This group, renamed the Cancer and Leukemia Group B in 1976, conducted clinical trials using two, three, or four-drug combinations. This strategy was not received kindly by the mainstream medical community.
“There was a general attitude that we not only didn’t know what we were doing, but what we were doing was potentially harmful to many patients,” Yates said.
Rather than embrace the work of the ALGB, cancer doctors largely adopted the thinking of William Dameshek, an influential hematologist at Harvard who was a mentor to many oncologists.
“His attitude was that we were poison pushers, that we were cowboys, that we were doing things that weren’t in the best interest of the patient,” Yates said. “Because he was extremely influential, we were viewed as outliers.”
Still, Yates remained hopeful—“because, as a physician, taking care of these patients—it made you feel good.”
Yates spoke with Alexandria Carolan, an associate editor with the Cancer History Project and reporter with The Cancer Letter. A full transcript appears here.
Tim Wendel on the “Cancer Cowboys” and getting to know the Acute Leukemia Group B
A band of “Cancer Cowboys” once known as the ALGB—Acute Leukemia Group B—are, in large part, responsible for flipping the mortality rate of childhood leukemia from 90% to 10%, where it stands today.
While researching his book from 2013 to 2017, Tim Wendel, lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and author of "Cancer Crossings," spoke with the doctors of ALGB. Among them was longtime St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital CEO Donald Pinkel, who died March 9, Jerry Yates, Lucius Sinks, James and Jimmie Holland, Emil “Tom” Frei, and Emil J Freireich. Wendel’s brother Eric was a patient of Lucius Sinks at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Eric was treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia beginning when he was diagnosed in 1966, until he died in 1973.
An edited transcript of this conversation appears here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/tim-wendel-on-the-cancer-cowboys-and-getting-to-know-the-algb/
Dr. Susan Love: Breast cancer activism in the 1990s
In honor of Women’s History Month this March, this week’s podcast features an interview with Susan Love, founder and chief visionary officer of the Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.
In this discussion, Love overviews the breast cancer advocacy movement of the 1990s, and how she and others helped educate breast cancer advocates about the disease.
“Really this was, ‘we want to be at the table. We want to be making the suggestions and making sure they happen, not just marching around wearing pink,’ and I think that made a big difference,” Love said.
A transcript of the interview with Love appears here.
A Cancer History Project Panel: Black History Month, and the evolution of the health equity movement
The panel, which met Feb. 23, 2022, discussed the impact of systemic racism, the history of the health equity movement, and the crucial role of mentorship.
- Robert A. Winn, MD
Guest editor, Cancer History Project;
Director and Lipman Chair in Oncology, VCU Massey Cancer Center;
Senior associate dean for cancer innovation and professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine, VCU School of Medicine
- Otis W. Brawley, MD
Co-editor, Cancer History Project;
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins University
- Edith P. Mitchell, MD
Member, President’s Cancer Panel;
Clinical professor of medicine and medical oncology,
Department of Medical Oncology;
Director, Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities;
Associate director, diversity affairs;
Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson University
- John H. Stewart, MD, MBA
Professor of surgery, Section of Surgical Oncology;
Founding director, LSU Health/LCMC Health Cancer Center
A full transcript of this discussion, as well as a video, are available here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/black-history-month-panel-we-need-to-talk-about-justice/
Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick: The Legacy of LaSalle Leffall, Jr.
Today’s episode features doctor Robert Winn, director of VCU Massey Cancer Center, and doctor John Stewart, founding director of LSU Health LCMC Health Cancer Center, who speak with Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University. This interview focuses on the legacy of LaSalle Leffall, a Howard University surgical oncologist. Stewart and Frederick were both mentored by Leffall.
A full transcript of this conversation is available here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/article/wayne-frederick-on-the-legacy-of-lasalle-leffall-jr/
Dr. Edith Mitchell on her path from Tennessee farm to becoming a cancer doctor and brigadier general
Dr. Edith P. Mitchell came a long way from growing up on a Tennessee farm, to becoming a brigadier general and serving on the President’s Cancer Panel.
“It was making a plan, having a plan, and all of us had similar type plans that we needed to leave the farm—yes I grew up on a farm—and get out of town,” Mitchell, member of the President’s Cancer Panel, clinical professor of medicine and medical oncology, director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities, and associate director of diversity affairs at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson University. “Yes, you have success, but look back, the students, students, the college students, the medical students, look back and pull somebody behind you, pull them up.”
Mitchell spoke with Dr. Robert Winn, director of VCU Massey Cancer Center and Dr. John Stewart, founding director of LSU Health/LCMC Health Cancer Center.
When Mitchell attended medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University, then called Medical College of Virginia, she was given a military scholarship and was supposed to give the Air Force two years of service.
She became interested in health policy and military medicine and remained in the Air Force. When thinking about retirement after 20 years of service, Mitchell, a colonel at the time, learned she was up for a promotion.
The only problem? Her competition, mainly white men, had all been to flight school.
“Most people go to flight school in their 20s, right? I was in my 40s with two teenage kids. So what did I do? I signed up for flight school. I finished. I got my flight wings and my certification in aerospace medicine,” Mitchell said. “Very few people know that I am certified in aerospace medicine, but what happened was, I was selected. I am the first woman doctor ever to be promoted to brigadier general in the history of the Air Force.”
This story is part of a series of interviews conducted by Robert Winn, guest editor of the Cancer History Project during Black History Month.
A transcript of this conversation is available here: https://cancerhistoryproject.com/people/edith-mitchell-on-her-path-from-tennessee-farm-to-becoming-a-cancer-doctor-and-brigadier-general/
Dr. Harold Freeman: Cutting cancer out of Harlem
In today’s episode, Dr. Robert Winn, director of VCU Massey Cancer Center, and Dr. John Stewart, founding director of LSU Health/LCMC Health Cancer Center, speak with Dr. Harold Freeman, the father of patient navigation.
Harold Freeman had big plans after he finished his residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 1968. He planned to cut cancer out of Harlem.
However, Freeman’s patients, Harlem residents who were poor and Black, often sought treatment too late. Freeman asked why—and aimed to fix this. This led to Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Breast Examination Center of Harlem, of which Freeman became the founding director. As president of the American Cancer Society in 1988, he published a study, "Cancer in the socioeconomically disadvantaged," exploring for the first time how poverty contributes to untreated cancers. All of this work, and his concerns about racial injustice, led to Freeman’s founding of patient navigation, an advance in helping people who face disparities address cancer.
This recording is part of a series of interviews conducted by Robert Winn, guest editor of the Cancer History Project during Black History Month. You can read the transcript of this recording here: cancerhistoryproject.com/people/harold-freeman-cutting-cancer-out-of-harlem
Introducing the Cancer History Project podcast
This is a trailer episode for the Cancer History Project's new podcast, which will explore oral histories and interviews with the people who have shaped oncology as we know it.
The Cancer History Project is a unique, collaborative, historical resource. Our contributors are cancer centers and other organizations who have had a role in shaping or recording the history of oncology. Since our launch in 2021, we have collected almost 12,000 records, and they are all available online, for free at CancerHistoryProject.com.
The Cancer History Project is an initiative by The Cancer Letter, the longest-running oncology news publication, established in 1973. This is an ongoing project and would not be possible without the input and materials provided by our editorial board, our contributors, and the support of our sponsors—including Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, City of Hope, SWOG Cancer Research Network and The Hope Foundation for Cancer Research, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Sarah Cannon Research Institute, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and many others.