Pioneering Medical Oncologist Remembers a Time Before the Subspecialty Was Created

A Conversation With Pierre R. Band, MD

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Pierre R. Band, MD

I consider my book on the history of medical oncology to be one of my greatest achievements: it is my legacy to the future generations of young medical oncologists.

—Pierre R. Band, MD

While the first written record of cancer dates back to ancient Egypt, the history of modern oncology is fairly short, dating back only slightly more than half a century. Clinical trials in the early days of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the emerging cooperative groups were led by a relatively small group of researchers who left an indelible footprint on the treatment of cancer. The ASCO Post recently spoke with one member of that select group of trailblazers, Pierre R. Band, MD, the author of the recently published Therapeutic Revolution: The History of Medical Oncology From Early Days to the Creation of the Subspecialty (Bentham Science Publishers).

Early Life

Please tell the readers a bit about your early life, where you were raised, and your education prior to entering college.

My parents were Hungarian and moved to France, where I was born. Our family was rather poor. We lived in Versailles, not too far from the famous palace, where my grandmother took me several times a week. While following and listening to the tour guides, I acquired a fair knowledge of the palace and of its beautiful park.

I liked school and was fond of the teachers I had, until the morning I entered the Lycée [state-run secondary school], where the main teacher, a stiff and military man, ordered that we learn the Latin first declension by heart for the next day. I began to hate school—particularly Latin—which turned out to have unexpected repercussions a few years later.

 When I was about to turn 16, we moved to Montreal. Being separated from my friends and my neighborhood overnight was a major shock for me. I refused to go back to school and worked in a restaurant. After a year, I decided to go back to school but to avoid Latin at all costs. Instead of focusing on “classical studies” as they were called in Montreal at the time, which included Latin, I opted for the high school that did not teach this subject.

Path to Medical School

In the introduction to your book, you talked about the difficulty you had being accepted to the university. Please elaborate on that and your eventual path to medical school.

After high school, I decided to enter medical school. However, to enter the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Montreal, classical studies were mandatory! To make a long story short, I took private courses in Latin and compressed the 7 years required at the French Lycée into 2 years.

With that out of the way, before being accepted to medical school, I had to pass an interview. The person who interviewed me was the histology teacher. He noted that my curriculum had been far from orthodox and suggested that I take a year of premedical courses called PCB, for physics, chemistry, and biology. I pleaded that he allow me to enter medical school and gave my word of honor that if I failed the first year of medicine, I would then take the premedical courses. The interviewer allowed me to enter medical school directly, and during my first year of medicine, I was first in my class in all subjects, including … histology!

Oncology Career

Your interest in cancer medicine developed at a time when oncology was not a specified clinical discipline. Please tell the readers a bit about your pursuit of the subject, and how it led to the NCI.

When the time came to choose a specialty, I wanted to remain close to internal medicine but not follow the beaten path. I opted for cancer medicine. It was an easy choice, although it did not exist as a specialty. My grandmother, who had died of cancer, may have subconsciously influenced me.

I started my oncology career at the Institut Gustave-Roussy in France in the Department of Georges Mathé, MD, who was well known worldwide for his work in bone marrow transplantation. My main clinical activities focused on the treatment of childhood acute leukemia, and I also got involved in the collaborative activities of a group that later became the European Organisation for the Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC), which Dr. Mathé founded.

I subsequently joined the Department of Medicine headed by James F. Holland, MD, at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, New York. I consider Dr. Holland the mentor who taught me cancer medicine and who introduced me to two of the main cooperative oncology groups, the Acute Leukemia Group B (subsequently Cancer and Leukemia Group B) and the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG). During those years, I benefited from Dr. Holland’s pioneering work at what was the forefront of cancer medicine.

Professional Highlights

Please share what you might consider some of the highlights of your long, illustrious career.

When I returned to Canada at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, I joined the ECOG as an active member, which turned out to be the first time someone from a Canadian institution joined that group. I wrote the protocol that became the first long-term surgical adjuvant study in breast cancer, the L-PAM study, carried out jointly by the ECOG and the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP).

I also wrote the protocol for the study of tamoxifen in metastatic breast cancer, and was the first physician in North America to treat a patient with breast cancer with this compound. That study played a major role in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of tamoxifen for the treatment of advanced breast cancer. I consider my book on the history of medical oncology to be one of my greatest achievements: it is my legacy to the future generations of young medical oncologists.

Life in Retirement

What activities are you involved in now?

I have now retired from my clinical activities without any regrets. I enjoy my family and my friends, I inherited a dog (that my son was supposed to care for), and I take great pleasure in going to the market. However, an important task is awaiting me: in 2010, I recorded a 2-hour video of three of the great pioneers of medical oncology—Drs. Emil Frei III, Emil J. Freireich, and James F. Holland. I am thinking of making a short documentary with the unique material I obtained. ■