The superheroes are at it again.

You may not realize it, but they are working today, not in Gotham City, but at our own Froedtert Hospital, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, the BloodCenter of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin. They aren't battling the Joker or the Riddler — but an even trickier and more deadly enemy known as cancer.

For the last four weeks, these superheroes, also known as the doctors and researchers at the above institutions, have allowed us a peek into their world. You might call it a ride-along into the exciting field of cancer research. Cancer used to be the biggest, baddest, deadliest disease, but today there are many weapons used in fighting it. To the layperson, it might not seem like much is happening, but there are battles going on in petri dishes right here in Wauwatosa. The dastardly cancer cells are being examined for genetic clues that show how they develop and to determine how they can be eradicated.

How do I know all this? For the last month, the organization Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment sponsored and presented a four-week series called "Conversations With Scientists: Cancer — Past, Present and Future." The sessions were held at the Medical College and consisted of fast-paced lectures with visual presentations. The audience could also ask questions during or after the sessions. There were ten presentations on a variety of topics ranging from the biology of a cancer cell to innovations in research, screening and treatment.

I would like to share with you some "Wow!" moments from the presentations.

  • It can take 10,000 attempts at different chemical combinations, 15 years and a billion dollars to bring just one new cancer drug to market.
  • While cancer cells can "go with the flow" by hitching a ride in the blood or lymph systems, they can also move on their own like an amoeba. (I don't know why, but this fact makes me detest cancer even more!)
  • It takes only one genetic mutation in one normal cell to begin an incredible chain of events leading to cancer. The researchers are developing drugs that can eliminate cancer using a body's own immune cells or blocking any of a number of stages in its development.
  • The Medical College works with hospitals to offer many clinical trials and closely monitor patients to assure the best outcomes possible. Trials offer patients the most advanced treatments available.
  • MCW is a nationally recognized leader in several areas of cancer research and in the field of personalized treatment.
  • Although not all cancers are currently preventable, it is possible to improve one's chance to keep cancer from gaining a foothold through nutrition, exercise and a healthy lifestyle.
  • Prevention such as vaccines and early detection with screenings like mammograms or colonoscopies can improve cancer outcomes tremendously.

It was a privilege to attend this series and to meet the superheroes behind treatments like the one that saved my life! It is a blessing to have an outstanding medical complex and dedicated staff right in our own city. More "Conversations With Scientists" programs are planned. In October, the focus will be on infectious diseases, and cardiovascular disease will be the topic next April.

Come and meet some real-life superheroes!

Share Your Thoughts

What "Wow!" moments have you experienced as you learned about cancer? Did you attend these presentations? Share your thoughts.

About the Author

Since she was a young girl growing up in Wauwatosa, Beth Dowhen has loved teaching. Eventually Beth received a phone call from the principal of Wisconsin Lutheran High School asking if she would consider teaching there. After 19 years, Beth reluctantly left the school and students she loved because she had developed an undiagnosed medical condition that left her exhausted after a day in the classroom. For two years, Beth and her doctors tried to solve the mystery. Eventually, Beth was diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma at the base of her tongue. No one suspected oral cancer since Beth was a nonsmoker, nondrinker, and HPV negative. Beth has received radiation and chemotherapy and some complementary acupuncture therapy, and now her scans show no evidence of cancer. She's returned to teaching, this time as a volunteer parenting coach at a counseling center.

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