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FIRST PERSON //

Medical Research: Course of Treatment

Victoria Reggie Kennedy explains how medical research is part of an innate American desire to strive for greatness.

By Victoria Reggie Kennedy // The MGH Research Issue 2011
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Simon Pemberton

Certain days in all of our lives stand as markers against which all other events are measured. Some, such as marriage or the birth of a child, are joyous. Others can be devastating. I remember vividly the day my husband was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. “Game changer” hardly describes the impact of that diagnosis. The diagnosis was not completely unexpected, but the words being spoken aloud confirmed that we had entered a new phase of life. The first thing we had to do was sift through treatment options. Surgery or no surgery? This chemo or that chemo? This kind of radiation or that kind of radiation?

As we made decisions about my husband’s treatment, we were fortunate to consult with the finest medical minds in the country, many of whom were at Massachusetts General Hospital. And with a team of brilliant doctors, we reached consensus on a course of action. We understood there was no cure, but we also knew advances in medical research could extend his life and improve its quality.

Our entire family was blessed to have my husband enjoy a tremendous life for 15 months after receiving his devastating diagnosis. He was able to speak at the Democratic National Convention, accept an honorary degree from Harvard University, return to the Senate to cast a key vote on Medicare, attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama, chair the confirmation hearing of a cabinet secretary, and work on the passage of health care reform—something he called the cause of his life. Through it all, he found the space to complete his memoir, sail his boat, and spend time surrounded by family and friends in laughter and song. He did not spend a single day in bed—not one—until his last. That is my wish for every patient who receives the game-changing diagnosis of cancer, even terminal cancer: not to spend their remaining days dying, but living life to the fullest.

The twenty-first century holds promise for everyone diagnosed with a serious illness. Personalized medicine offers the hope of replacing the carpet-bomb approach to chemotherapy with surgical strikes that arrest cancer at the molecular level. The new technology of examining the genetic makeup of a person’s cancer and finding a targeted therapy to fit its mutation is already beginning to make treatments more effective while causing far fewer of the side effects that can keep people from enjoying rich, satisfying lives after diagnosis.

Though these advances hold enormous promise, they will bear fruit only if we commit to continued and sustained biomedical research. It has been nearly three decades since the first cancer gene was identified, but we still have yet to complete a comprehensive reference database of human cancer genomes showing all known mutations for each type of cancer. We need to establish which mutations are the greatest drivers of tumor growth and, for each one, to pinpoint the biological mechanisms ripe for therapeutic intervention. And we need to translate discoveries into clinical reality as quickly as we can.

Ted Kennedy once said in another context: “We are Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And we can do it again.”

We are the nation that eradicated polio, invented the first artificial heart and performed the first successful bone marrow transplant. Surely, when it comes to the personalized treatment of cancer, “we can do it again.”

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