A tribute to cancer genetics pioneer Dr. Henry T. Lynch

A tribute to cancer genetics pioneer Dr. Henry T. Lynch
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The professional life of cancer genetics pioneer Henry T. Lynch, MD, who died earlier this month at age 91, is illustrative of the perseverance and grit often needed to buck the medical establishment in order to advance medical science.

Generally regarded as "the father of hereditary cancer detection and prevention,” or the "father of cancer genetics,” Lynch believed early on that heredity played a part in cancer during a time when most scientists attributed cancer to environmental causes.

But the six-foot-five former high school drop out, underaged World War II Naval gunner, and professional boxer known as “Hammerin’ Hank” completed his education, and pursued a doctorate in human genetics before switching over to medicine and entering an often turbulent career until his theory that cancer could be inherited was proven and accepted years later.

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Lynch, who was chairman of preventive medicine at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, established the Hereditary Cancer Center there in 1984.  

He attributed his cancer heredity theory to observations that some cancer patients had relatives or ancestors with the same type of cancer, particularly colon cancer.

However, for more than two decades beginning in 1990 his applications for research grants from the National Institutes of Health were met with rejection.

Still Lynch continued to collect data and statistics showing that “cancer syndromes” affected several generations of families. Eventually, his work was accepted and hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer is now known as Lynch syndrome.  

He also demonstrated that certain breast and ovarian cancers were inherited, which led to the identification of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes by others.

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Today he is credited with having saved numerous lives through his support of early detection through screening and prophylactic surgery for certain conditions. 

A giant of medicine, the former boxer continued to pummel his way past medical critics until his work was accepted by his former skeptics and his contributions laid a significant cornerstone in cancer prevention.

The fortitude and determination he demonstrated are necessary components of making any significant contribution to society, and are reminiscent of the trials and tribulations faced by two other important cancer pioneers — Drs. Judah Folkman and Bernard Fisher — who spent years in the medical wilderness before each’s lifelong life-saving work was finally acknowledged by their peers.

Folkman, who died in 2008, was the founder of angiogenesis research, which led to the discovery of therapies based on inhibiting the flow of blood to tumors.  He was a professor at Harvard Medical School and directed Children’s Hospital Boston’s surgical research laboratories.

Fisher, who is 100 years old, championed treating early-stage breast cancer with a lumpectomy in combination with radiation therapy, chemotherapy and perhaps hormonal therapy, replacing the disfiguring Halsted radical mastectomy. He also weathered allegations of scientific fraud before being fully vindicated and restored to his previous post as chair of the cancer cooperative group, the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

These medical heroes personified that persistence and belief in their ability to help others through what were considered unorthodox methods or theories could ultimately lead to better outcomes for patients.

Lynch’s legacy extends beyond its impact in cancer prevention and his example — and that of Folkman and Fisher — of not yielding to criticism or peer pressure in pursuing one’s beliefs is a lesson for us all.

Nancy G. Brinker is the founder of Susan G. Komen. She is currently cofounder of the Promise Fund of Florida and has also served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, U.S. chief of protocol and as a Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. Find her on Twitter: @NancyGBrinker. Eric T. Rosenthal writes about and develops forums for discussing health care issues and policy and is the founder of the National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers Public Affairs Network. Find him on Twitter: @etrosenthal