Dollars for Diagnosis

Local researchers are working toward earlier diagnosis and better treatment of lung cancer

 A couple weeks ago two-dozen people gathered for a meet and greet to reinvigorate the “Creating Hope” task force at the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, one of the big, shiny new buildings a stone’s throw from UW Hospital and Clinics. It was a nice mix of doctors, researchers, survivors, families of people who’ve died of lung cancer, and folks from both the UW Carbone Cancer Center and the UW Foundation. I’ve attended these meetings in the past, and the message is always the same—that lung cancer kills more people than it ought to because the funding simply isn’t there for research that could lead to earlier diagnosis.

Oncologist Anne Traynor led a tour of the new lung cancer wing inside WIMR, an impressive facility where the research and treatment worlds co-mingle. For example, Deric Wheeler, a Ph.D. in human cancer biology, studies and improves the efficacy of a drug Traynor and others prescribe to patients. Their offices are next to each other, and just down the hall from the lab where scientists conduct the experiments. The fancy name for it is translational research, and hopeful studies include those that might better predict people’s predilection toward the disease as well as their response to certain types of treatments. Finally, lung cancer is slightly less invisible.

Unfortunately, only scant government-funded research is available for lung cancer. Too many people die too quickly, leaving too few advocates for the cause; only four people at the task force meeting were survivors. It’s still considered a smoker’s disease despite a boatload of evidence to the contrary. “I was shocked to see lung cancer is so poorly funded,” says Jack Beyerly of Fort Atkinson, one of the survivors.

That’s why the task force raises private money for the “Creating Hope” fund, to reverse the momentum of investing less and receiving less in return. I’ve been following their progress since its inception, and they’ve accomplished a lot. Right now the task force is on a mission to raise $4 million to support the WIMR work, which includes recruiting and retaining talented researchers.

One new development is findings from the most successful clinical trial in decades. The national study of 50,000 at-risk people showed a twenty percent reduction in deaths when a low-dose CT scan was used to detect cancer versus a chest X-ray. It basically makes the case for screening as an important early detection and prevention tool—like PSA tests for prostate cancer and mammograms for breast cancer. Traynor is so hopeful she says lives could be saved immediately.

But for some at the meeting, the damage of lung cancer has already been done. Vicki Kipp is a widowed mother of two young children who lost her thirty-six-year-old husband Garrett last year. Pat Howell lost her husband Brian—this magazine’s editor before me—who died before his two grandchildren Lucy and Ellie were born. I was surprised and saddened to see Andy Linderman sitting at the table with his wife, Donna, who is battling the disease. Andy, best known as West Side Andy, the great blues musician, is a longtime friend of the magazine who has livened up many a Best of Madison celebration over the years. For such a small staff, our magazine family has way too much experience with lung cancer. We lost publisher Jen Winiger’s husband Phil last April because the illness was caught too late.

I hate pitting one cancer against another—for example, the statistics on how many more women die of lung cancer than breast cancer due to inequities in funding. I’m grateful we shine a great big pink light on breast cancer every October. Our business manager, Cindy Morris, is alive today thanks to an innovative type of treatment called brachytherapy. I just wish Brian and Phil were, too.

November happens to be Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and on November 3 at 6 p.m. at the Holiday Inn West the Carbone Cancer Center is welcoming Lori Hope, a lung cancer survivor and author of Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know. The event is part of a national campaign appropriately titled “Shine A Light.” The event is for all of us who care about cancer, regardless of the kind. In the end, we’re looking for the same thing: a cure.

 Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or bnardi@madisonmagazine.com. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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