A pioneer in oncology has passed. Dr. George Richard Blumenschein, M.D., is credited with developing the modern approach to treating breast cancer.
In 1959, the native Illinoisan went to Yale where he earned his B.A. and then it was off to Cornell Medical College where he graduated in 1963. After graduating medical school, he settled in New York City, where he interned at Bellevue Hospital. After completing his internship, he enlisted in the Navy and worked at the Centers for Disease Control, where his interest in oncology was sparked. Thereafter, he finished his residency at Duke University, where he worked in hematology, and in 1969 he returned to Illinois and joined the faculty at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he established their oncology program.
In 1973, he moved to Houston to join the faculty of MD Anderson cancer center, where he became the Chief of Medical Breast Services. It was at MD Anderson that Dr. Bluemenschein took a small department and developed it into a state-of-the-art, world-renowned breast cancer center. At MD Anderson, Dr. Blumenschein and his team pioneered the discovery and implementation of new therapies and treatments for breast cancer, including the introduction of the use of anthracyclines. Anthracyclines are drugs that damage the DNA in cancer cells, causing them to die. He also developed the “FAC” (chemotherapy) regimen and the introduction of “Multimodality Therapy” (a combination of two or more cancer treatment approaches like chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, etc.), which dramatically improved the survival rates in breast cancer patients.
He was a leader and advocate for his patients who served long hours in the clinic with them. He was beloved by his patients. I came to know Dr. Blumenschein because he was treating my sister, Susan G. Komen. When Suzy became his patient she was already an advanced, stage four-breast cancer patient. Despite great medical efforts, Suzy died of breast cancer in 1980 and four years later I was his patient. When I was admitted to MD Anderson cancer center for a biopsy I had a sixth sense that it was the same sort of tumor Suzy had. Our understanding of the disease was very limited. He knew, however, that younger patients like Suzy and me who had aggressive breast cancers needed aggressive interventions early. I was fortunate to be treated early and he was there for me every step of the way — no matter what time of day or night. I am alive today in great part to the efforts of Dr. Blumenschein.
When I honored Suzy’s promise to find a cure for breast cancer and founded the Susan G. Komen organization, Dr. Blumenschein was the first to answer my plea for help and served on the board of Susan G Komen. He opened so many doors, introducing me to Dr. Bill McGuire, who was and is still considered one of the most brilliant scientists devoted to breast cancer research who ever lived. The San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium was his idea and today it is the largest conference on this subject, bringing together the best and brightest minds in collaboration.
His passion for treatment, education, and cure was as deep and devoted as mine that we quickly hit it off. He understood that it took the layperson and the experts to work together to best serve the patient as well as the research and medical communities.
Passion, compassion, ability and collaboration were the hallmarks of Dr. Blumenschein’s professional life. While we may not have been able to find the cure to breast cancer in his lifetime, we are well on our way to doing so thanks to his lifetime of service.
In order to realize the goal of eliminating breast cancer we need more Dr. Blumenscheins. We need doctors with the ability to build off the achievements of those who came before them and to step into their shoes. The good news is that we have many bright doctors, scientists, researchers, and lay people who have taken up where Dr. Blumenschein left off.
Medicine was not just a profession of Dr. Blumenschein, it was a mission. How many people can say that in their lifetime they have accomplished life-changing results for millions of people around the world? Dr. Blumenschein did just that.
The mission of finding a cure for breast cancer goes on and thanks to the life’s work of Dr. Blumenschein we are closer to that end.
May Dr. Blumenschein rest in the peace he so richly deserves.
Nancy G. Brinker founded Susan G. Komen in 1982 on a promise she made to her sister, Susan G. Komen, who died in 1980 at the age of 36, that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer. In 2010, Brinker released her New York Times best-selling memoir "Promise Me." Brinker has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Obama in 2009.
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