Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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S. Amjad Hussain


American Cancer Society still going strong at 100

The American Cancer Society is 100 years old this year. It continues to play a dominant role in unlocking the mysteries of cancer, and finding new ways of treating and educating the public.

The society is the only organization in this country that has dedicated itself to cancer eradication. It enjoys the trust of the public; its educational activities have benefited both patients and physicians. In my professional career, I have often referred to its publications for statistics and new trends in treatment.

In 1913, 15 physicians and businessmen met in New York City to create the American Society for the Control of Cancer. The group, which sought to raise public awareness, was later renamed the American Cancer Society.

In 1946, the society, under the patronage of philanthropist Mary Lasker, raised $4 million. One-fourth was allocated for research.

In 1947, Dr. Sidney Farber used a chemotherapy regimen to induce successful remission in childhood leukemias.

The society also played an important role in promoting the life-saving Pap test. Some cancers, including cancer of the cervix, have a propensity to shed cells.

Dr. George Papanikolaou developed a simple test that examines a smear of vaginal and cervical secretions under the microscope to detect cancer cells. Early treatment of cervical and uterine cancers has reduced cervical cancer deaths among women by 70 percent.

Diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer led to a quest to prevent it. It is now well established that the human papillomavirus (HPV) plays a central role in causing many cervical cancers. A vaccine against HPV was in part funded by the cancer society.

In addition to preventing cervical cancers, these vaccines are used for the prevention of anal cancer.

There is a common perception that cancer is one disease that affects different organs. In reality, cancer is a group of more than 100 diseases. They differ from one another in causation, natural course, and response to treatment.

Some cancers are lethal and spread like wildfire. Others have a slow, smoldering course. Some respond to treatment rather well. Others do not. There is no single silver bullet that can kill cancer.

Much cancer research is directed at understanding why some cells become abnormal and start growing uncontrollably, causing havoc with the normal functions of the body.

This process, in which abnormal cells start crowding and consuming normal cells, is triggered by a mechanism that in many cases we do not fully understand. This sleuthing is time-consuming and expensive.

The U.S. government spends close to $5 billion annually on cancer research. The society spends more than $120 million a year on cancer research — and all of this money comes from donations.

Recent advances in understanding and treatment of many cancers have been astonishing. In the 1960s, there were few cancer medications. Now we have hundreds.

With effective and safe radiation machines and supportive treatments, we can now cure 80 percent of cancers. Between 1991 and 2009, death rates from cancer decreased by 20 percent in America. That translates into 1.2 million lives saved annually.

In the past century, the cancer society has done many other positive things: initiating the Reach to Recovery program in 1969, sponsoring the National Cancer Act in 1971, promoting mammography for breast cancer in 1973, beginning the Great American Smokeout in 1976 and Relay For Life in 1985, discovering the BRAC1 gene and detecting the inherited nature of some breast cancers in 1990, and supporting a new lung cancer therapy in 2005.

In 1946, Wendell Stanley and Hermann Muller became the first cancer society grant recipients to receive the Nobel Prize for crystallizing a virus and discovering the connection between radiation and cell mutation. Society-sponsored researchers have won 46 Nobel Prizes.

The American Cancer Society has done a commendable job of bringing the once-taboo subject of cancer out into the open. It also has been successful in finding cures that were unheard of when 15 visionary men founded the organization.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

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