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Why my fight against cancer is personal

May 25, 2017 | Richard Van Etten, MD
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"Everyone knows someone touched by cancer. For me, it was my mother," says Dr. Richard Van Etten, director of the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Sometimes you do not know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.

In the second grade, I got a chemistry set for Christmas. With it, I created what I thought was a great cleansing solution.

My mother cautioned that before I could come to that conclusion, however, I needed to first perform an experiment that included a control. That was a pretty insightful statement from someone who had no formal scientific training! (Even now, the No. 1 mistake across all of science is the failure to include adequate controls.)

A source of encouragement

My mother was the source of intellectual stimulation for my sister and me. She often encouraged us to be creative and think critically. And like most mothers, she had very high expectations for her children.

When I was in my early 30s, she was diagnosed first with breast cancer and then with high-grade uterine cancer. A medical oncology fellow at the time, I took on the difficult task of advising her about her care and prognosis.

But what is routine today was still unknown then.

Twenty years ago, there was not strong evidence to support the benefits of adjuvant chemotherapy for early stage breast cancer. My mother was terrified of receiving chemotherapy, and she chose hormonal therapy instead.

In the end, you cannot imagine how heart-wrenchingly frustrating it was to watch her die of cancer — despite all of my training and knowledge. But losing a parent does not happen in a moment. It takes years to appreciate the impact of what is gone.

Influencing patient care

Although I was already committed to a career in cancer research, my mother’s personal journey with cancer was the primary reason I refocused my emphasis on clinical oncology, on both clinical trials and patient care.

Experiencing her battle firsthand continues to influence my approach to patient care.

At the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, where I serve as director, compassionate care is at the heart of what we do. We never forget our patients are human. We know the comfort of being heard and properly cared for is just as important as the leading-edge medicines and treatments given.

Cancer treatment improving

And while it may always be scary to hear that you or your loved one has cancer, promising research and treatment options are on the rise.

At our cancer center, we are taking diseases that used to be fatal and transforming them into treatable conditions. We have a research mission to develop new knowledge about the causes, prevention, treatment and survivorship of cancer. We do this in part through clinical trials, which are opportunities for patients to access promising experimental medicine well before they become available elsewhere. Our early-phase clinical research program has increased dramatically in recent years.

Innovations and and technologies in imaging, next-generation sequencing and genome editing have moved very quickly in the last several years, with an explosion of information about the genetic makeup of cancer and how that can be leveraged for better treatments. More cancer drugs were approved last year than in the previous three years combined. Progress brings hope, and the signs of progress are everywhere. And yet, there is still so much we need to do.

Inspiration for life's work

This most recent Mother’s Day, I was reminded why my life’s work is so critical. I wanted my mother to be proud of me when I was growing up, and I still feel that way today.

Her advice was always important to me, and she was usually right. My cleansing solution experiment failed — one of many that would. But my mother encouraged me to never give up. Today, when my lab experiments lead to breakthroughs, I feel her enduring influence.

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