TEDMED Day 3: Learning a healthy respect

by Hiep Nguyen on October 29, 2010

In this aquarium in Japan, staff bow to the whale. (Image by gwaar, via Flickr)

What did my inner child learn today from 32 speakers?  Just one special word:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Clifton Leaf, a journalist and author, demonstrated that while the reported age-adjusted rate of cancer appears to be decreasing, the gross cancer death rate actually is increased. The message was clear: we underestimated this disease. Anna Barker, former deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, echoed this message in recounting our war on cancer. Our lack of respect for the disease’s complexity misdirected our efforts and resources. We thought cancer would be eradicated within 10 years — but over 40 years later we’re just beginning to unravel the inter-connectivity between disturbed biologic processes that lead to cancer.

Danny Hillis, chairman of Applied Minds, Inc., brought forth the need to have a respect for environmental influences on the development of disease. Our genes may pre-ordain the development of a disease, but it is the environment in the forms of toxins, allergens, and infections that activates the disease process.

Finally, respect has to be given to the patients and families affected by these diseases. Personal stories came from Alexandra Drane, president of the Eliza Corporation, whose sister-in-law had terminal glioblastoma, and Bruce Feiler, a noted author, who himself was devastated by osteosarcoma. Both taught us that patients not only need treatment or cures, but also love, compassion and respect.

So did my inner child lose his enthusiasm and imagination with all these sober lessons these last three days? Not at all; my imagination continues to soar. But now it is guided by sage thoughts.

Hiep Nguyen, MD, FAAP, is a pediatric urologist and surgeon at Children’s Hospital Boston and a pioneer in developing, testing and implementing robotics techniques to improve minimally invasive surgery. He co-directs the Center for Robotic Surgery, directs the Robotic Research and Training Center and is chair of Innovative Urological Technology. Off-hours, Nguyen is also a painter, potter and photographer. Check out a video of Nguyen’s pottery here.

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