Fuchs Illuminates Associations Between Cancer, Lifestyle Habits

Andrew Smith
Published: Thursday, Oct 04, 2018
Charles S. Fuchs, MD
Charles S. Fuchs, MD
The idea that by choosing your foods carefully you can improve your resistance to cancer and your survival odds has gained much credibility through the years, largely owing to the work of one man in particular—Charles S. Fuchs, MD, MPH.

Fuchs, the 2017 winner of the Giants of Cancer Care® award in Gastrointestinal Cancer, began using population studies more than 2 decades ago to clarify the roles that diet, exercise, and other very basic lifestyle choices play in both the prevention and treatment of gastrointestinal cancers. In doing so, Fuchs and his collaborators have demonstrated strong ties between cancer and an ever-growing list of items: vitamin D, aspirin, red meat, exercise, obesity, and more.

“I became interested, right at the very beginning of my professional life, in identifying risk factors for gastrointestinal cancers, and it occurred to me that I might spot them by analyzing data from a project that had been going on since long before I arrived on the scene—the Harvard cohort studies,” says Fuchs.

His academic work, which has seen him lead major drug trials and perform many other forms of cancer research, has resulted in more than 600 published papers. His administrative work, which saw him lead the Gastrointestinal Malignancies Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Center for nearly a decade, inspired Yale University to name him director of its rapidly growing cancer center. Yet Fuchs remains most well-known for the epidemiological work that started with cohort studies from Harvard’s Pooling Project of Prospective Studies of Diet and Cancer.

“There were, and are, 2 huge cohorts, female nurses and male health professionals, with more than 200,000 combined participants, all providing a huge amount of health-related personal information over decades of time. Such large populations were clearly going to develop a large number of gastrointestinal cancers over the years, and it was my hope that the numbers would be large enough and the patient information comprehensive enough to test hypotheses and identify risk factors with a high degree of certainty,” says Fuchs, whose idea proved sound enough to furnish years of new discoveries.

Early Days to Harvard

Fuchs was born in the Bronx and grew up about 8 miles farther north, in New Rochelle, New York. His father was in the moving and storage business, and his mother was a homemaker.

He describes himself, in retrospect, as a good student—good enough to get into the University of Pennsylvania—but not exceptional. He developed an interest in medicine during his high school years, when he volunteered at a small local hospital that gave him a wide variety of tasks. The young Fuchs registered patients, wheeled people around, did simple lab work, assisted radiologists—whatever was needed on any given day. The experience gave him a broad overview of what different doctors did and his first inclination toward cancer care.

Fuchs committed to oncology during his years at Harvard Medical School and started to specialize in gastrointestinal cancers while doing his residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Boston and studying for a master’s degree at the Harvard School of Public Health. The decision stemmed, in part, from the realization that the statistical skills he learned at the School of Public Health lent themselves to the analysis of such a common type of cancer and, in part, from the fact that it was the chosen specialty of Robert J. Mayer, MD, one of his mentors, who would later be named a 2015 Giants of Cancer Care® winner.

At that time, Mayer had already made a name for himself, not only as a great researcher but also as a great mentor, the sort who would give young colleagues the opportunity to do interesting and important work and offer the support they’d need to navigate the complexities of grant requests, research oversight committees, and the peer review process. Not that Fuchs needed all that much support.

“I vividly recall that we collaborated to write a review paper on gastric cancer for the New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM], just when Charlie was starting out. He submitted his manuscript to me, and I got out my red pen, because he was at that age where I knew he’d need a huge amount of editing. Then I read through the whole thing without making a mark,” Mayer says. “His ability to take a huge amount of information and present it all clearly and logically was amazing right from the very start. It shows in everything he does, but it is particularly important in epidemiological work.”

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