By Tim Wendel
A half-century ago, few in the medical field dared to take on childhood leukemia. At the time, the approach was to make patients as comfortable as possible, for they probably wouldn’t be with us much longer. But the medical world changed forever when a small group of doctors, who gathered in Buffalo beginning in the late 1950s, decided there had to be a better way.
When Dr. James Holland left the National Cancer Institute for a job at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, he was asked to continue to lead a fledgling group of doctors who were eventually nicknamed the “Cancer Cowboys.”
After hours they regularly gathered in the Hollands’ kitchen in North Buffalo to discuss the latest clinical trials and advances in patient care. In the ensuing decades, they took acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) from a 10 percent survival rate, pretty much a death sentence, to a 90 percent cure rate.
These days we often hear about the promise for a “cancer moonshot” and we appear to be on the cusp of one, thanks to immunotherapy and other advances. But what’s often forgotten is we had such a moonshot 50 years ago and it occurred in Western New York.
Everyday people became caught up in the can-do attitude at Roswell Park, too. When Cyril Garvey, who had a son, Kevin, undergoing treatment at Roswell Park, saw people sleeping in their cars, he thought they were homeless. But when he was told they were parents of other children at Roswell Park, ones that couldn’t afford a hotel room, he started the Kevin Guest House, the forerunner to the Ronald McDonald House nationwide.
My brother Eric was diagnosed with ALL in 1966. He was only supposed to live 12 months. Thanks to the doctors and nurses at Roswell Park, he was with us for eight years.
This past summer I toured the country, telling how his treatment intersected with the careers of the Cancer Cowboys. Somewhere along the line, someone asked, “Could this have happened anywhere else but in Buffalo?” After all, there were quality facilities and plenty of money for research at the time. More importantly, this amazing group of doctors was in Buffalo, ready to take on this deadly killer of children.
“We sometimes fought like cats and dogs,” remembered Dr. Donald Pinkel, who went on to found the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. “But we were always reunited in our efforts against childhood leukemia.”
Those of us from Western New York revel in the hometown Bills and Sabres. Yet we should never forget the legacy of the Cancer Cowboys and how this team of doctors may be the best success story ever to hail from Buffalo.
Tim Wendel grew up in Lockport and is the author of “Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia.”