Chipping Away

A blow-by-blow look at how Colorado doctors and researchers are taking the fight to cancer right now.

August 2014

—Illustration by C.J. Burton

Bonus: Search the 2014 Top Doctors directory at 5280.com/topdocslist.

You notice it right away: a white-noise symphony of refrigerators, freezers, incubators, shakers, mini-furnaces, centrifuges, and, most notably, massive servers. The low hum is the soundtrack to which scientists at the University of Colorado Cancer Center methodically attempt to unlock the secrets of a complex disease.

In a series of laboratory alcoves, each dedicated respectively to lung, breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers, M.D.s, Ph.D.s, and basic researchers wield pipettes, tubes, culture dishes, microscopes, and voluminous three-ring binders. In the so-called dry labs down the hall, a bioinformatics team—experts who store, organize, and analyze biological data—examines terabyte after terabyte of information about the gene sequencing of different tumors.

Just one building to the south, in a suite that lives beyond a set of positively pressured doorways, nearly every one of the Anschutz Cancer Pavilion’s 50 infusion bays is filled with a patient enduring the slow drip of chemotherapy. The sheer number of people in need of treatment on a recent Wednesday morning is overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Cancer—not heart disease—is the number one killer of Coloradans.

Our state’s relatively high life expectancy, increasingly elderly population, and comparatively low obesity rates—three seemingly positive measurables—may actually be contributing factors in cancer’s continued victory over coronary artery disease as the Centennial State’s top cause of death. And Colorado’s cancer fighters, like thousands before them over thousands of years, are ramping up the war on what many have called an immortal disease.

For as complicated as cancer may seem, it can be described in one simple phrase: the uncontrolled growth of a cell. Cancer cells lack the regulation that tells normal cells to cease dividing; they also elude the signals that direct a cell to die. Of course, cancer’s indefatigable passage has also continued to (mostly) thwart human intervention. No matter what we’ve thrown at it over time—radical surgeries, vitamins, supertoxic chemotherapies, vaccines and other preventive measures, radiation—cancer has often found a way to thrive. It is sneaky and highly adaptable.

But those adjectives are just as apt for the surgeons, oncologists, hematologists, radiation oncologists, and clinical and lab researchers who spend their days—and nights and weekends—looking for ways to outfox an ancient disease that is still killing more than 500,000 Americans every year. With exacting skill and unrelenting passion, Colorado-based physicians are employing every known weapon in the arsenal—the newest incarnations in cancer surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, screening, and prevention—and, in many cases, pushing the field to the cutting edge, where a deeper understanding of the disease is yielding novel therapies.

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