Since I hired on at MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2002, I have admired Dr. John Mendelsohn immensely for what he did in raising awareness of cancer prevention & treatment, as well as raising the profile of MDACC itself. On occasions when I saw him, he had this transcendent glow about him, and not just because his lab coat was the whitest possible shade of white.
This morning, in my daily email digest from the Chronicle, I was saddened enough by the headline about Dr. John Mendelsohn's recent death from a glioblastoma. That ethereal glow of his did not shield him from cancer, nor did his years of oncological research, nor did all the advances in treatment that MDACC pioneered under his watch.
Millions of past and present patients and employees at MDACC will lionize this man. However, the news also leads me to reflect on the side of Mendelsohn those folks will likely overlook. I'm gratified that the article's author, Todd Ackerman, chose not to ignore that side.
When I worked in the Information Services division at MDACC, mostly during Mendelsohn's presidency, I often expressed the wish that he & The Anderson would do more to confront the environmental causes of cancer. They spent a lot of time preaching about healthy eating, abstaining from tobacco, etc. That's expected of an institution like MDACC, and it is necessary, but not sufficient.
The Chronicle's article mentions that he considered the late George H.W. Bush a friend. Bush and his associates have been major donors to MDACC, and some have served on the Board of Visitors there. From my perspective, that friendship in itself does not tarnish Mendelsohn. But Bush & Co. are mostly connected with the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. A lot of the money that keeps the place running is oil money. Oil money talks, and it says, "Don't even think about calling for a cleanup of the Cancer Alleys in Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere."
Thanks to his connections, while he was president, Mendelsohn served on the Board of Directors of the Enron Corporation. Perhaps he didn't know of Enron's dirty practices while they were happening, but we already had a hint of them as early as 1992, thanks to a power plant project in Dabhol, Maharashtra, India.
The Erbitux insider trading allegations? Not proven, and while they were a dent in his armor for a few years, I don't really care about them.
Here's a story that, for me, vividly encapsulates MDACC's reticence on environmental carcinogens. Shortly after I arrived there, we staff members received email announcements of a new recreation room for teen and young adult patients on the second floor of the Alkek Hospital building. They named this facility Kim's Place, after Houston Comets guard Kim Perrot, a recently deceased high-profile patient.
How did an athlete like Perrot develop "a rare lung cancer that affects nonsmokers" that metastasized to her brain? We can't know for sure, but exotic cancers are considerably less rare in the part of Louisiana where she grew up: that whole corridor between Lake Charles and Lafayette.
You may find it ironic that a cancer-fighter like Mendelsohn was defeated by an aggressive and inoperable tumor. But a cancer center in Petropolis that runs on petro-donations naming its youth facility after a woman who died at age 32 most likely from a petro-cancer? There isn't a proper word in English for irony that reaches that level. It's probably even more bitterly ironic than Enron sponsoring Earth Day celebrations back in the 1990s. It's the equivalent of that all-too-true "We killed the Indians and named our cities after them" trope.
"Making Cancer History"? All those advances in prevention, diagnosis and treatment won't achieve that lofty goal of until we make the Big Switch to renewable energy—until we as a nation stop extracting, refining, and burning fossil fuels and the rest of the world does the same.