by Paul Mampilly, Daily Reckoning
“We’re going to chop off your tongue.”
That’s what they told him when he went to see the cancer surgeon.
They told him that they were going to chop off his tongue and put a muscle from another part of his body in its place.
And even if this tongue amputation worked, the cancer surgeon told him, he stood only a 50% chance of living for another two years.
But that didn’t scare him. He told his doctors what he really feared was losing his incredible ability to taste food, eat it and use this sensibility to make food for other people to eat.
“I lived my whole life in the kitchen. Not only that, but it’s the passion, it’s the love for cooking and food. It’s dictated my entire life – every aspect of it. So in some ways, the thought of not being able to do that anymore radically affects your life.”
I’ll tell you in a minute whom I am talking about and why this story matters so much. But first…
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago is the Burning Man – or if you’re older, the Woodstock – of medical conferences in the United States. This year, an estimated 25,500 attended. Although I can personally say it felt as if there were 50,000 people there.
If this seems trivial to you, just imagine nearly 30,000 of the most elite doctors, scientists and businesspeople involved in treating cancer, researching cancer medicines and making cancer drugs all in one place at the same time. If a terrorist planted a bomb at the convention center, the world’s knowledge of cancer would be set back by at least 20 years.
in 15 years… cancer is going to get knocked down to the status of a chronic disease.
Plus, there were 400 sponsors (companies that sell drugs, services or devices for cancer patients) along with patient advocacy groups and other nonprofit medical groups.
At the conference this year, I read through over 100 abstracts on drugs and treatments that are currently being developed for cancer patients. I also attended 12 presentations with subjects ranging from limb-saving surgery versus amputation in sarcomas (in bone cancer) to glioblastomas (in brain cancer) to molecular targeting and immunotherapy.
By the end of the conference, I came to this stunning realization:
Cancer won’t be a death sentence for much longer.
At the conference, I spoke with some of the country’s most elite oncologists (cancer doctors). The doctors are the ultimate judges of how good these drugs are, because they are the ones who are dealing with cancer patients every single day. And here’s what these elite doctors were saying at the conference…
“What blew me away – and what should blow you away – are these response rates. This is a truly amazing disease-free survival,” said A. Dimitrios Colevas, MD, of Stanford Cancer Center about the trial results on a drug that’s waiting for FDA approval for use in thyroid cancer.
“It’s been very exciting… A few years ago, we had very little to offer patients, and now many more patients can be cured using these new therapeutic approaches, even if their melanoma [skin cancer] has spread,” said Patrick Hwu, MD, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was talking about ipilimumab, a drug that is approved by the FDA for skin cancer.
“If an oncologist practicing in 1964 at the time of ASCO’s founding was placed in a time capsule and transported to the 2014 ASCO Annual Meeting, she could be forgiven for thinking she had arrived in another universe. The landscape of breast cancer management… has changed so dramatically as to be virtually unrecognizable,” said Monica Morrow MD, chief of breast cancer surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
We’re giving you a bird’s-eye view of the ongoing revolution in cancer treatment so that we can better spot early opportunities to invest alongside blockbuster drugs that will save lives… Your life and the lives of your family, your friends and countless others you haven’t met yet or don’t even know.
Because in 2014 alone, there are going to be 1,665,540 people like you and me diagnosed with cancer, and 585,720 of us are going to die from it.
I’m not saying this to scare you. I’m saying this because simply nobody in their right mind can argue that cancer is not a clear and present danger to every single one of us living today. Why am I so sure?
Because one out of every four of us is going to die from cancer. Right now, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S. And guess what? Fighting cancer is righteous, and it’ll only take one friend or family member to get you onboard this growing cause.
On Sunday, June 1, the third day of the ASCO conference, I went to Chicago’s funky meatpacking district in search of a secret restaurant called the Aviary. The Aviary is owned and run by Grant Achatz. Grant Achatz was rated as the best chef in America in 2008. His other Chicago restaurant, Alinea, is currently rated as one of the best 10 restaurants in the world. Yes, that’s right, the world.
And Achatz is the chef whose tongue the cancer surgeons wanted to replace.
If you like great food, you’ll be happy to hear that Grant rejected the surgeon’s advice to cut his tongue off. Grant instead chose an experimental therapy at the University of Chicago, where they treated him with radiation and chemotherapy. Now, this experimental treatment still burned Grant’s tongue and made him shed the lining of his esophagus (the esophagus is the tube that carries food, liquids and saliva from the mouth to the stomach). So while Grant saved his tongue, this experimental treatment utterly and completely killed his taste buds.
But the treatment worked. And his cancer went into remission. Best of all for Grant, he still had his tongue. And with his tongue still in his mouth, Grant kept the hope that one day he might have a chance to taste again.
Achatz is still alive today. His cancer has been in remission for seven years. And some time after the radiation and chemotherapy was finished, his taste buds slowly started coming back. His flavor sense came back one day at a time.
“I started from zero, and the first thing back was sweet. So my palate developed just as a newborn – but I was 32 years old. So I could understand how flavors were coming back and how they synergized together… It was very educational for me. I don’t recommend it, but I think it made me a better chef because now I really understand how flavor works.”
If you want to know more about Grant Achatz, read his book Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death and Redefining the Way We Eat.
So what does Grant Achatz’s cancer have to do with anything?
You see, the quantity and quality of drugs in development that I saw being presented at ASCO this year virtually guarantees that the next time a talented chef like Achatz gets tongue cancer, he won’t be given a choice between cutting his tongue out or burning it.
Instead, a doctor will take a small tissue sample of his cancer tumor. Next, a lab will match his cancer tumor to see which specific cancer gene molecule is causing it. And then he’ll get a drug that’s designed precisely to knock out the cancer gene molecule causing the cancer.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, because we’re not to this point yet, but each year, five more of these kinds of targeted cancer drugs are going to become available to patients. And each year, these drugs are going to become more effective and less toxic.
I predict that in 15 years, most of us will simply take a pill or get an injection and live with our cancers. In other words, cancer is going to get knocked down to the status of a chronic disease. By chronic, I mean that you’ll take a medicine for your cancer and lead a normal, productive life.
Keep your eye on this space!