A few weeks ago, my wife and I met a pre-school boy who was going through chemotherapy. He couldn’t understand why people stuck needles in him or gave him medicine that made him so sick. His parents agonized watching. However, if chemo was successful, he would be able to have a bone marrow transplant. We did not have the heart to tell them the challenges that would present.
The good news is that he will be given new stem cells that grow marrow to produce cells necessary to sustain life. As difficult as this treatment is, we are fortunate to have it and the great doctors and staff to administer it. I know this because I have cancer and went through it.
You can pray your family avoids cancer. The chances are about 40 percent that you will have cancer one day and 54 percent that you or a family member is taking a cancer journey now. Each year, more than 53,000 people in this state will hear, “Sorry, you have cancer.”
While this all sounds maudlin, there is great reason for hope and to celebrate the changes underway. The key is research. Since 1992, the death rate from cancer has fallen by 26 percent. This is mainly due to new treatments growing out of research. For example, we are at a point of explosion in immunotherapy research, trials and treatments. Chemotherapy uses toxic drugs to kill cancer cells, but it also kills non-cancerous cells. Immunotherapy teaches a patient’s own immune system to kill cancer cells and only cancer cells, thus leaving healthy ones alone.
Cancer is a team sport. This kind of research needs a big, stellar institution that has attracted talented researchers. We must have all of the medical specialties involved and they have to be among the best in the world. That does not come cheaply.
Government will remain a principal source of funding, but probably a declining one. This makes all the more important gifts from those of us who can invest in the public’s health and the state’s future. My wife Etteinne and I are making an investment in this fight. We intend to give UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center $10 million to fund this research and have already given funds to finance immunotherapy trials.
We North Carolinians are fortunate to have UNC Lineberger for research and the N.C. Cancer Hospital for treatment and trials of potential breakthroughs. Not only is Lineberger the only public National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in the state, but it is on the forefront in areas such as genomics research, where it is a leader in the national effort to map the human cancer genome. Also, its medical faculty includes the 2015 Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, Aziz Sancar. He discovered how DNA repairs itself. Since damaged DNA is key to many cancers, it is likely to be the basis of future better treatments and perhaps prevention.
As proof of its preeminence, Ned Sharpless, who headed Lineberger, was “stolen” from us last year to run the National Cancer Institute, where he sets the national cancer research agenda.
The researchers and clinicians at UNC are why I am still here. This is just one more example of how this state’s amazing university system, paid for by the sacrifice of generations of our people, benefits all of us. For this we are deeply grateful and we can show it by supporting its cancer research.