AMA president speaks of pancreatic cancer struggle

June 15, 2008 5:14:07 PM PDT
As a doctor, Ron Davis knew what it meant when he got a diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer earlier this year. So did his audience on Saturday, the American Medical Association. Davis, a doctor of preventive medicine, is the group's president and he got the bad news eight months into his one-year term.

Like most of those diagnosed with the disease, Davis' cancer has spread beyond the pancreas, reducing chances for recovery. Surgery wasn't an option.

"As a physician, I know the survival statistics for someone with stage 4 pancreatic cancer," he said. But if the five-year survival is 5 percent, that's not zero... So, never take away someone's hope."

In an upbeat, sometimes funny and at moments poignant, emotional 45-minute speech, Davis talked about his life and how it has changed, both good and bad since his diagnosis. He spoke of his hopes for the future, his own and that of his fellow doctors and their patients. And he talked about legacy - his and that of everyone listening to him.

"So, whether we are ill or well, we should not waste any of that time before figuring out how to leave our mark on this planet," he said.

Davis urged his fellow doctors, gathered in Chicago for their annual meeting, to help patients live healthier lives. He applauded the AMA for supporting stronger regulation of tobacco and for raising awareness about people who don't have health insurance. And he urged the group to press for even more, raising federal taxes on tobacco and working to avoid Medicare doctor payment cuts.

These are familiar issues for Davis. A native of Chicago who now lives in East Lansing, Mich., he has spent his career working to prevent disease and raise awareness about the risks of tobacco. His agenda as AMA president has included coverage for the uninsured and promoting health quality and safety.

After his diagnosis, he has still managed to keep a dizzying pace of meetings and speeches. During one lecture, he walked on a treadmill to "walk the talk" on prevention of chronic illness through fitness.

He continues on chemotherapy, an aggressive regimen his doctors hope will halt the spread of cancer now in his liver. And though bald, he looks robust. He will turn 52 on Wednesday.

Davis told his listeners of pursuing the "noble cause" of raising awareness about pancreatic cancer, which afflicts 37,000 Americans a year, and kills 34,000. While it is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the nation, "pancreatic cancer research accounts for less than 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute's research funding," he said.

At times he was funny as he joked about the positives of a terrible diagnosis. People keep giving him hats, he said while slipping a Detroit Red Wings cap on his hairless head. "My son Connor no longer tells me in the morning that I have wacky hair."

It was in speaking of his family that he choked up. The father of three sons said he has spent more time over the last four months with his wife and children.

As he ended his speech, they joined him at the podium for a hug. The standing ovation he got lasted three minutes.


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