Sylvester’s WellBeingWell Conference Provides Message of Hope

More than 400 guests who attended Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s WellBeingWell conference were asked to imagine a day when cancer is no longer the scourge of our time, but a chronic condition that can be treated. That message of hope was delivered at the conference held Thursday at the JW Marriott Marquis Miami Hotel.

The third WellBeingWell gathering, sponsored by Chico’sFAS, featured a series of seminars by Sylvester physicians and scientists who detailed the challenges of fighting cancer and finding new therapies, but also explained how the field is making headway thanks to breakthroughs in areas such as genetics, molecular pathways, immunotherapies and targeted therapies.

The goal is to make cancer a chronic disease. In his breakfast keynote address, Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., Director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, provided an update on the “war on cancer,” detailing how prevention, vaccines and screening have helped save lives. The field of epigenetics, the study of how each cell in our body maintains its identity, and its ability to respond to changes in its environment, without changing its DNA, is now a key focus of cancer research. “We aim to use this new knowledge, to induce cancer cells to behave normally again. That way more people can live despite having a cancer diagnosis. In other words, we would like people to die with cancer, not from it.”

A variety of nationally recognized Sylvester physicians and scientists presented breakout panels on key cancer topics, educating people about steps they can take to live a healthier life. Also presented were aspects of the most promising cancer research, new, more effective cancer therapies, specific issues that relate to men’s and women’s health and how to best cope with a cancer diagnosis. Scores of people attended a session on integrative medicine, which incorporates evidence-based practices such as nutrition, psychosocial counseling, and exercise into a patient’s treatment plan.

Patient-engagement was a repeated theme. While introducing Nimer, Donna E. Shalala, President of the University of Miami, said part of well-being is “about our own accountability for our health.”

At the start of his luncheon keynote address, physician and scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., Ph.D., gave attendees a sneak peek at two segments from the Ken Burns’ special based on his Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The three-part program will air nationwide on PBS in March.

His address, much like his New York Times bestselling book, explained the history of cancer, where cancer research is now and where it is heading. Using layman’s terms and engaging stories, he described cancer research as a series of three seminal discoveries: cancer as a disease of cells, cancer as a disease of genes and most recently, cancer as a disease of genomes.

Because of its diversity and heterogeneity, Mukherjee said cancer remains like “an iceberg that is almost entirely under water.” For more than 100 years, cancer was known as a disease of cells, cells that grew uncontrollably. Not understanding what sparked this growth, scientists focused on ways to stop cancer with chemicals, leading to chemotherapy, and surgery, leading to radical operations.

In the early 1970s, researchers realized that cancer is much more complicated than previously thought. Physicians now know that genes control the growth of cells and scientific advances have uncovered genomic sequencing, opening a whole new field. The concept of finding a single cure for cancer, the ‘Big C,’ has long been shattered. “Every cancer is its own cancer,” said Mukherjee. “We have to find the organizing principle to treat them effectively. Find the Achilles’ heel.”

Admitting there are great challenges, Mukherjee said cancer research is in the midst of a transformational time. Another hallmark needs to be achieved, he said, to “save not only us, but our children from these diseases.”

Conference Co-Chair Vivian Urbieta described the day as “enlightening and life-changing. It’s encouraging to know that cancer breakthroughs are happening right here. We are fortunate to have a world-class cancer center such as Sylvester in our backyard.”

Sponsors included Chico’s; Urbieta Oil; Elemis Spa at the Village of Merrick Park; Lily and David Serviansky; Sandy and Tom Levinson; Barbara Woolverton; Macy’s; The Harcourt M. and Virginia W. Sylvester Foundation; and Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra, LLC.

To view a gallery of photos from the event, click here.

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