By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Dr. Martin Brecher won’t emcee the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Diamond Ball in Clarence Saturday night – WIVB-TV anchor Jacquie Walker will handle that – but if he could, he’d tell those gathered something like this:
“The word ‘cancer’ still strikes terror in people, but I would want them to know how much progress has been made, that things are changing rapidly and we’re much more optimistic in our approach with patients.”
He also would want those in attendance to know how thankful he and his colleagues are for their kindnesses.
“These folks who give up their own time – and often have no specific involvement with the arena, but who see others going through difficult times and wish to help – I’d want them all to know what a huge difference they make in the lives of people.”
Brecher, 67, has seen that impact firsthand. The Bronx native – who came to Buffalo for medical school in 1968, and stayed – runs the pediatric hematology/oncology units at Women & Children’s Hospital and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
All too often, both nine-bed wings are full. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that children who must be there today are much more likely to survive cancer than those who came four decades ago, when Brecher plunged into this challenging field.
Can you talk about what treating children with cancer was like back then?
Treatments have gotten much more sophisticated over the last 30-plus years. As a result of that, success rates, cure rates, have gone up dramatically. In the mid-1970s, when I started training specifically in this field, cure rates for childhood leukemia were probably in the range of 40 to 50 percent. We’re now looking at cure rates of 85 to 90 percent. Similar increases in cure rates are reflected in many types of childhood cancer, but not all. Overall, our success rates have gone up to the point where we now cure probably two-thirds of all childhood cancer patients – and I use the term ‘cure.’ I don’t mean just getting them into remission for a couple of years. The ultimate outcome is our principal goal and that has changed dramatically, but still not enough. We don’t want to be losing any pediatric patients.
What have been the most important lessons families have taught you?
There’s no question that patients are your best teachers, both about the illnesses themselves but how they respond to therapy, how they react to therapy.
It’s a constant lesson in perspective. I may have a difficult day at work. I may have to deal with some of the typical day-to-day issues that all of us face in life. Sometimes I’ll get frustrated or upset or angry and say, ‘Wait a minute, look what these families go through. This is nothing, nothing!’ It certainly has put my life into perspective.
Just the courage that these patients and their families show teaches you so much. You learn so much from them – and I think they learn, too. People at the beginning sometimes think, ‘I can’t handle this. How am I going to deal with this? I’m never going to get through this.’ It’s amazing the strength you find when you have to find it. When it’s your kid who is involved, these people really show incredible strength and get through things I can’t imagine getting through.
Watching children in this realm, what have they taught you?
Number one, the resilience, and the forgiving nature of children is amazing. You’re doing things to kids that aren’t always comfortable, whether it’s physical discomfort, separation anxiety for a young child who has to stay in the hospital for a procedure, whether it’s telling a teenager she’s going to lose her hair – they may get upset for the moment, but if you’re forgiving of them and are honest with them (his voice trails off) … They ask so little of you: ‘Do what you have to do and let me get on with my life.’ It’s amazing what a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old can come up with, and (after treatment) can continue to live life as if nothing has changed.
What’s the biggest miracle you’ve seen in your years as a pediatric oncologist?
I don’t know off the top of my head I can come up with any one, but I will tell you in general, there are patients whose condition was so poor – they were in a very advanced stage of disease or had a critical complication – that I really thought they had a very minimal chance of making it. One of the things I’ve learned is don’t count anyone out.
What advances in treatment do you see on the horizon when it comes to childhood cancers?
Ideally, what would we want? We would want the silver bullet. We would want the drug treatment that goes straight to the cancer, kills the cancer, and leaves all other normal tissues alone. … Even though we’re doing so much better now curing most of our patients, I hope we will someday look at chemotherapy as the dark ages of cancer care, and say, ‘Remember when we hit the body real hard and we cured a lot of cancers but we had a lot of side effects? Now we have much more refined techniques that are curing even more people and avoiding some of those side effects.’ That would be the hope – and I think it’s a realistic hope.
On the Web: Donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society WCNY chapter at lls.org/aboutlls/chapters/wcny; What is it like to tell a family a child has cancer? What happens next? Read the Refresh Buffalo Blog on Saturday