A new oncologist began seeing patients at Carroll Hospital's William E. Kahlert Regional Cancer Center over the summer. Dr. Bill Gai has a medical degree from Shandong Medical University, in Shandong, China, and a doctorate degree in molecular and cell biology from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. As both scientist and doctor, he has an interest in treating lymphoma, breast and lung cancers, as well as leukemia.
The Times recently caught up with Dr. Gai to learn more about what brought him to Carroll Hospital and his optimism about the future of cancer treatment.
Q: You came to the William E. Kahlert Regional Cancer Center at Carroll Hospital in June. Tell us about your practice there and why you chose this community hospital.
A: I have always been interested in face-to-face patient care and providing my clinical caring for patients in the community. I am privileged and blessed to have an opportunity to work with a very fine group of oncologists and staff in the William E. Kahlert Regional Cancer Center at Carroll Hospital, where the sole purpose is to serve the community's needs. It provides state-of-the-art oncological and hematological care to patients from diagnosis, plan of care and treatment, as well as survivorship follow up. In addition, my family lives in this area, thus providing me a balance of family and work.
Q: You have an interest in treating breast cancer, lung cancer, and lymphoma as well as blood cancers such as leukemia. What drew you to focus on these cancers and what makes them different from other areas in oncology?
A: Prior to my career of clinical practice, I had many years of laboratory scientific research in cancer biology and genetic regulation. These research experiences confer me a better understanding of how cancer cells interact with host normal cells and with its peers. Breast cancer, lung cancer and leukemia tumor biology were some of my research subjects in the past.
Naturally, I developed strong interests in these cancers' diagnosis and treatment. With a strong science background, I continue to follow the scientific developments in treating these cancers and others closely, and apply to daily management of my patients as appropriate.
Q: You're not only a medical doctor, you also earned a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from Ohio University. There are certainly great clinicians who have not pursued a research degree, and great biologist who do not have a medical degree — what motivated you to pursue both degrees? How do they complement each other and inform your practice of medicine today?
A: Once I graduated from medical school, I decided to pursue medical research initially to better understand medical science in depth. The rigorous training in a Ph.D. program afforded me scientifically critical thinking skills, which helps me in my current daily decisions in formulating cancer diagnosis and treatment planning.
One of the unique parts of medical oncology and hematology is that its diagnosis/treatment has been rapidly evolving, and in some areas, revolutionized in the past decade. The driving force behind all of these is advancement of basic medical science research, such as the advent of immunotherapy in treatment of melanoma and lung cancer and many other cancers. A good understanding of basic science behind cancer is very important for every oncologist. I am thankful for this training.
Q: The Carroll County Times has for many years published what we originally called the "Pink Paper" in October, raising awareness of issues surrounding breast cancer. More recently, we have expanded this special issue to focus on cancer more generally. Many of the cancer-themed fundraising events, such as Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, also aim to raise awareness. As an oncologist, what does it mean to you to raise awareness of cancer? What are the specific things that the general public should know or think about when it comes to cancer and cancer treatment?
A: Cancer has become one of the major public health hazards in our country and around the world. In my view, cancer awareness, in general terms, has two aspects.
Firstly, it is cancer prevention. There is no better way to prevent cancer from happening in the first place.
Secondly, it is to make the public aware of early detection of cancers. We are more likely to cure early stage cancers than a late one. By raising awareness of cancer, I hope that our community understands the pivotal importance of prevention and early detection of cancers such as breast, colon, and cervical cancers et al. Through relatively simple early screenings, we are able to detect, treat and cure a substantial portion of these cancers at an early stage.
In addition, there are many controllable factors that may make one more prone to having cancer. These include smoking (lung cancer), lack of vaccination such as human papilloma virus (HPV) (cervical cancer), early usage of tanning bed/UV exposure (skin cancer), personal dietary habit/weight control (colon and breast cancer et al), among some other factors.
As for the treatment, I would like to remind our patients that appropriate attention to some common things can help navigate through and alleviate treatment side effects as well.
Q: President Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer in 1971. Cancer has proved a tenacious foe, but there have certainly been victories over the years. How would you describe the status of the war on cancer today? How hopeful are you that we will continue to make headway in detecting and treating cancers? What gets you excited when you think about your practice five years from now?
A: Since President Nixon declared a war on cancer in 1971, we have achieved better treatment and cure rates in some cancers largely due to screening and early detection. To some extent this is attributed to worldwide translational research that converts basic scientific understanding of cancer formation to better clinical treatment. Some of the triumphs include breast cancer, melanoma and colon cancer et al.
Yet many other cancers have increased in their incidence and mortality. In 2016 there were approximately 1,685,210 new cancer cases and 595,690 deaths due to cancers. This is an increase over previous years; therefore cancers remain the greatest challenge of mankind, and tremendous work lies ahead of us.
Fortunately, with the advent of modern research on molecular level, and better understanding of genetic impact on cancer formation, we have opened a new chapter of fighting cancer more precisely by applying more targeted treatments to the abnormalities causing cancer. These are called "Personalized Medicine."
This is an exciting era to be an oncologist. In September 2016, former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden announced "Cancer Moonshot" initiatives to help cancer patients navigate the clinical trial and speed new treatment to market. MD Anderson Cancer Center had announced "Cancer Moonshot Programs" as an effort to integrate artificial intelligence into cancer diagnosis and treatment planning.
All these concerted efforts will have a huge impact to our current understanding and treatment of cancers in the near future. Looking forward to five years from now, I am confident that we will be better equipped with understanding of cancer formation, finer diagnostic modalities, more effective, less toxic and less costly treatment for cancers — one more step to cure cancers for once and all.