I just noticed this blog celebrated its 10th anniversary this September. So I hope you won’t mind me taking this opportunity to share some observations and reminiscences of what it’s been like to document by blog a decade of the changing landscape of cancer.
The first blog was published on September 9, 2005 when I introduced the blog and my vision for what i hoped it would represent.
The blog originated with a concept developed by our media relations team. Social media was just coming into prominence, and the Society was looking at ways to get into this space. Bob Lutz, a senior executive at General Motors at the time, was the model: he wrote a regular blog himself, and was pretty open in sharing his thoughts. It was clearly not one of those ghost written, pre-packaged types of things. How he found the time to do a blog was an interesting question, but the concept was intriguing: if we could have one of our senior folks write something similar, perhaps it would get some recognition in this rapidly expanding means of communicating.
So we ventured into the space and I started writing “Dr. Len’s Blog”. One of the interesting “back story” elements was that I was given pretty open editorial freedom: I could pick the topics and write what I wanted. There was no formal editorial oversight, except what I chose to solicit. And my colleagues stood by their word. To this day, what you see is pretty much what I want to write. OK, there are the occasional blogs that touch on a topic of specific importance to the Society but I doubt anyone is surprised by that. And on only a handful of occasions have I written a blog that wasn’t published, usually because of sensitivity issues but occasionally because there was some internal discussion that it might not be a good idea. Finally, we have not had others write the blog either for me or under their own names. We have other vehicles (“Expert Voices” is one example) for that purpose.
The frequency has varied. The blog appeared more often in the past, less so currently. That reflects the reality of a pretty busy schedule, including a lot of travel. Sometimes it reflects the fact that there isn’t anything in particular on which I want to comment. I must confess I would like to write more, but schedules, commitments and other expectations are what they are. The “counter” says I have written 526 blogs, but to be honest I haven’t checked. In any event, it’s been more than a few.
Oh, and I can’t ignore what I was told early on that the blog was simply too long. That criticism has not abated. “People don’t have the time to read lengthy comments” I have been told. My reply then and my reply now is that if people don’t want to read it, they don’t have to. But if they read it I want them to learn and perhaps think about an issue or topic in a way they may not find elsewhere.
What has fascinated me is how the blog has reflected the trends and progress (or lack thereof) of cancer care over this past decade.
One example was one of my early blogs on the importance of family history in understanding cancer risk. It was important then, it’s important now, and I am not certain we have made much progress in the interim.
Other themes have come up repeatedly, such as prostate and breast cancer screening and treatment. Vitamin D is another. Currently, the themes of the month (or should I say year?) have been genomics and immunotherapy.
What has been interesting to me is how the blog has been used as a reference resource. A reporter may interview me or a colleague has a question about a particular topic. Not infrequently, I can go into the blog archives and put together a series of comments that may span several years and provide some background on how the issue has evolved. And sometimes I find that reporters use the blog as a template for their story, which is perfectly fine with me.
There are occasional blogs which have received a degree of notoriety. My comments on death panels made it to one of the top stories of the day on ABC’s website. A blog on DCA—a common cleaning chemical which reduced tumors in laboratory experiments—was also repurposed by others and became a focal point of international discussion on the topic of whether this was a potential drug that would treat cancer (we still don’t know). My blog on the 2009 recommendations of the US Preventive Services Task Force with regard to breast cancer screening was part of a nationwide response that led Congress to assure that women would still have access to breast cancer screening beginning at age 40 (the task force had recommended changing the age to start mammography to 50 for women at average risk). Using dogs for the early detection of cancer has brought literally a decade of comments and media interviews.
Celebrities and cancer have also had their moments. Sometimes it is someone revealing a cancer diagnosis (Robin Roberts comes to mind, another blog that was repurposed on the network website). Sometimes it is the death of someone well known, such as Steve Jobs—a blog that I wrote immediately upon learning of his death and which became the initial lead story in a well-known business magazine.
And, yes, deaths in my family or those I knew have led to blogs when there is a message to share. Uncle Chester was one and this past week it was about my wife’s Granny. Both were powerful moments for me and our family, and I am grateful for their permission to write these stories about moments that are so common to many of us.
Then there is the occasional humor.
The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology is always a time I write more frequently, given the major research and lectures that are presented at this meeting. But there are also moments that make less scientific but still important points, such as the limitations on free coffee (some states prohibited their licensed doctors from accepting coffee; that one actually generated some interesting social media traffic). Another year it was the banning of pads and pens for doctors, as though these were going to influence the prescription of chemotherapy and other supportive medications (I will say that some experts do believe that is the case). One year it was what I called “the little rooms,” places where the foreign doctors attending the meeting could get information from the pharmaceutical companies beyond the label approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration—while United States physicians could not have access to the same information. And finally there was the year I reported the number of steps I walked during the meeting (it was a lot. McCormick Center in Chicago is a big place!).
Of course, there are those who deserve special mention in helping to make the blog possible. I must share a special “shout out” to David Sampson, my corporate communications colleague and friend who has always been there to support this effort. He has suggested topics, prodded me to write when I really didn’t want to be prodded, edited my copy to make it more appropriate (and yes, encouraged me to shorten many entries) and has just generally been a great supporter and a great friend. Another friend and colleague is Otis Brawley MD, who is the Chief Medical Officer for the Society. An avid writer and media personality himself, he has been gracious with his time reviewing controversial topics and is always there to catch me when I think I may be stepping over some imaginary line. Chuck Westbrook has overseen our website for much of the time I have been writing the blog, and Harsha Reddy recently marshalled the forces when we transitioned our “blog engine” to a more modern framework. My sincere thanks to everyone who has helped make these last ten years successful.
Most important of all are you, the readers, who through your comments and your encouragement (and your tweets/retweets!!!) have let me know how much you appreciate what I have written. Your support is very much appreciated.
So now it is time to look forward. My hope is to write more, but one never knows when time and topics will allow that to happen. Where I used to focus on specific research articles I now try to focus on thoughts about the trends I have observed, and the promise or concerns I may have about the future (hope, hype, overpromising and under delivering is always in vogue when it comes to cancer care, as it has been from the time I first started my oncology career). As long as my colleagues continue to support me, I will be here to share my thoughts.
My sincere hope is that you have enjoyed my occasional missives, and that I will continue to meet your expectations. Thank you for taking this journey with me.