Monday, March 30, 2015

Patricia Thomson: Bloodletting, Cupping, Leaching and Purging

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) is a proud supporter of Ken Burns presents "CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES", a film by Barak Goodman, a vivid account of how far we've come in the fight against cancer.  North Texas Executive Director Patricia Thomson, Ph.D., provides a preview of the three party mini-series to be shown on PBS later tonight.

"In the mid nineteenth century, according to the author, 'bloodletting, cupping, leaching and purging were common procedures' for the treatment of diseases and infections.  Sterile techniques was absent with surgical sutures being made out of catgut and left to hang out in the open air, scalpels hanging out of pockets and blood-soiled tools dusted off before surgery.  Fast forward 50 years through the introduction of anesthesia, the evolution of the radical mastectomy, the development of x-ray technology and the production of synthetic chemicals.  Although these developments were a far cry from the older methods, they still brought their own baggage and some.  Anesthesia allowed the more intense and radical surgeries to occur however removal of tumors in many cases was only a piece of the puzzle.  Permanent disfigurement and chronic pain were often the result along with relapse and death from the original disease.  Advancement to more sophisticated treatment would only come through the understanding of how cancer was caused and how it spread. 

We shall so poison the atmosphere of the first act that no one of decency shall want to see the play through to the end – James Watson, speaking about chemotherapy in 1977.

Unbelievable as it may sound, chemotherapy got its origin from the use of mustard gas in the 1940s. It’s ability to totally scorch and deplete the bone marrow in its victims captivated scientists.   As expected, the first patients treated were acute leukemia patients and most were children.  Imagine the parents of a sick child being told that their child would be treated with mustard gas to cure them of their cancer.  Those children are the true heroes of our time.  They paved the way for more modern, less invasive and successful therapies. 

Chemotherapy took it’s place as the main form of treatment for blood cancer in the 40's and 50’s.  While remissions would extend longer and longer for patients, relapses were inevitable.  The early years were brutal for patients and their families.  Here is a riveting excerpt from the book regarding a women from the 50’s and her observations at the world renowned Farber clinic:  'Once I discover that almost all the children I see are doomed to die within a few months, I never cease to be astonished by the cheerful atmosphere that generally prevails.  True, upon closer examination, the parent’s eyes look suspiciously bright with tears shed and unshed.  Some of the children’s robust look, I find, are owing to one of the anti-leukemia drugs that produces swelling of the body.  And there are children with scars, children with horrible swellings on different parts of their bodies, children missing a limb, children with shaven heads, looking pale and wan, clearly as a result of recent surgery, children limping or in wheelchairs, children coughing, and children emaciated.'  She really paints a vivid and stark picture of cancer treatment 50 to 60 years ago.

Fast forward to the present, chemotherapy has come a long way, more refined and more specific to the patient and the cancer diagnosis.   It still is, however, an invasive type of therapy often resulting in long term effects, no cure, and even death.  Immunotherapy, genetically engineered killer cells, early diagnostic tools and personalized medicine is the new wave of therapies and preventive tools producing promising results and a bright future for the treatment of cancer in our lifetime.  

I hope you will join us in watching the upcoming “Cancer – The Emperor of All Maladies on PBS TONIGHT, Tuesday and Wednesday.  Set your DVRs!


Save the Date:
The three day documentary will air on PBS from 9-11p on March 30th and 31st and April 1st.  We hope that you will tune in.  

LLS supporters will be pleased to find that a number of the major advancements made in the fight against blood cancers highlighted in this documentary came through the work of LLS-funded researchers.

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