Battling colon cancer, personally and professionally
Medical oncologist Charles Fuchs, MD, the new director of Yale Cancer Center, never imagined he’d have to deliver a cancer diagnosis to his own wife—yet, that’s what happened in 2006. Recognizing Dr. Fuchs as a leading expert in colon cancer, his wife’s gastroenterologist contacted him with the news. The experience further fueled Dr. Fuchs’ already strong commitment to reduce the mortality rates of colon cancer.
When the call came, Dr. Fuchs was out of state at a meeting. He left immediately to fly home and tell his wife, Joanna, face to face. He drove to a tutor’s house where he knew she was waiting for one of their three children to finish a lesson. Taking one look at him, “I just knew,” says Joanna Fuchs, MD, a cardiologist. Just 44 at the time, she started to cry. The disease ran in her family; in fact, it took her grandmother’s life.
“The irony was that this is his work—his career,” she says. And yet, says her husband, “It’s nothing you can prepare for. It’s devastating.”
Dr. Fuchs arrived at Yale Cancer Center in January from the Dana-Faber Cancer Institute in Boston. He also serves as the physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven and is a Yale Medicine doctor specializing in gastrointestinal cancers. This spring he was named co-leader of the Stand Up to Cancer Colorectal “Dream Team,” and his wife was chosen as a patient advocate representing Yale Cancer Center. The top researchers who make up the Dream Team have been awarded a $12 million grant to find new therapies for colorectal cancers.
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Joining the colorectal cancer 'Dream Team'
The organization, which uses the name SU2C, was co-founded by journalist Katie Couric, who lost her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer in 1998. There is a sense of urgency to the mission since many in the medical community believe that advances in the treatment of colon cancer are lagging behind other types of cancer. “The biology of colon cancer presents unique challenges that are distinct from other cancers,” Dr. Fuchs explains. “It doesn’t avail itself as other cancers do to current cancer drugs.” The SU2C team is using the grant money to advance research and clinical trials to better understand the genetic drivers of colorectal cancer and the role of the immune system in its development and progression.
“We want to understand what makes colorectal cancer invisible to the immune system, so we can develop better immunotherapy treatments,” says Dr. Fuchs. Immunotherapy drugs recruit the body’s own T cells to fight off cancer.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer for men and women. According to the American Cancer Society, 135,430 Americans will be diagnosed with it this year, and it is expected to claim 50,000 lives this year alone. Increasingly, higher numbers of young people are being diagnosed with the disease, and researchers are trying to figure out why.
Joanna Fuchs was lucky in the sense that her disease was diagnosed at an early stage. Her symptoms cropped up while the family was on vacation. Signs of colon cancer can include rectal bleeding, blood in stool, changes in bowel habits and constipation, though some patients with early-stage colon cancer have no symptoms at all.
Symptoms raise a red flag
Concerning his wife’s case, Dr. Fuchs says, “Her symptoms raised enough of a flag with me that I told her to see her internist.” Her colonoscopy revealed three polyps—one of which turned out to be malignant. Blood tests and a CT scan showed the cancer hadn’t metastasized (spread beyond her colon). She underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove the diseased part of her colon and remains cancer-free today. She undergoes colonoscopies every three years and is careful to get plenty of exercise and follow a healthy diet. In addition, she takes a daily vitamin D supplement since having low levels is associated with the disease.
The couple hopes that advances in screening and diagnoses of colorectal cancers will save many lives. Their own children will start screenings in their early 30s because of their family history. Good preventive care can dramatically reduce the odds of them developing the disease.
Eleven years after her diagnosis, the couple enjoys seeing how their children have grown. One of their twin sons is now a medical student at Harvard; the other is launching a screenwriting career in Hollywood. And their daughter is a first-year-student at Yale University.
A better clinician and cancer researcher
Dr. Fuchs says that his family’s experience with cancer has had a profound impact on him, personally and professionally. “Finding out that someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer can be overwhelming, but the experience can make you a better clinician and a better cancer researcher,” he says.
Occasionally, Dr. Fuchs shares his personal experience with cancer when he senses patients and their loved ones need extra reassurance. “I tell my patients, ‘I understand. I’ve been there,’” he says.
Through his work Yale Cancer Center and Smilow, as well as his involvement in SU2C, Dr. Fuchs is determined to improve outcomes not only for colon cancer patients but for all people and families who struggle with all forms of cancer. Meanwhile, Dr. Joanna Fuchs has a deep understanding of the disease now as a cancer survivor, patient advocate and spouse.
“I think I have even more compassion now toward his patients and take to heart the care he gives all his patients, including young patients who have young families,” she says. The couple hopes that through their research efforts, more people with this disease will have happy endings, too.