A physician describes his lifelong quest to solve the riddle of the cancers that afflict his family.
In this memoir and medical detective story, debut author Boland describes his family members’ history of colon and uterine cancer and his own efforts to identify their cause and prevent future cases. Boland’s father, a pediatrician in upstate New York, died of inoperable colon cancer in 1970, and seven of Boland’s 13 siblings had also been diagnosed with cancer by then. As a child, the author was already intent on becoming a doctor, and he conducted some early scientific experiments that included boiling a dead cat in his room to learn about anatomy. After his father’s death, Boland began researching his family’s cancers while attending the Yale School of Medicine, even though one epidemiologist simply blamed the problem on “bad luck.” In his own research, however, the author discovered the “cancer family syndrome,” or Lynch syndrome, which showed that certain cancers could run in families. After drawing blood from relatives and, in his own words, “being sodomized in the name of science” for a rectal biopsy, Boland “learned a lot about failure early in my research career,” he writes. That career included positions at the University of Michigan and the University of California, San Diego. For many years, he worked in his own lab and with researchers far afield without success. Then researchers found the specific genes responsible for hereditary cancer, enabling Boland and a nephew to create a test for the syndrome and a program of effective preventative measures. Overall, the author has written a clear, if sometimes rambling, account of the long, hard struggle to identify the cause of his family’s illnesses. He writes with grace and good humor, and he balances the heavy emotional and physical tolls of cancer with the long, arduous task of searching for a cause. The happy result of this messy process, along with occasional strokes of good luck, is that a disease that once devastated Boland’s family “looks very different in the 21st century,” and he holds out the hope that continued research will mean that “someday cancer will be considered like a nasty infection.”
A hopeful account of the value of persistence, cooperation, and science in understanding and conquering disease.