A Farewell to Two Giants
At our group meeting in Chicago last month, we said thanks to two giants of SWOG cancer research, both of whom were completing their terms as committee chairs.
The first is Dr. Ian Thompson, who has been with SWOG since the early years of former Chair Dr. Coltman’s tenure and who recently stepped down as chair of our genitourinary committee.
He first came to prominence within the group as study chair on S8794, which reported its practice-changing results in JAMA: adjuvant radiotherapy after radical prostatectomy reduces the risk of metastasis and lengthens survival in patients with advanced prostate cancer.
Dr. Thompson went on to lead the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial (PCPT). Initial results and long-term survival results both appeared in NEJM, with the ultimate conclusion that finasteride significantly reduced men’s risk of prostate cancer, with a perceived increase in high-grade cancers on the finasteride arm due to improved detection caused by the drug. The trial has generated well over 200 additional publications, and counting.
Dr. Thompson also played a huge role in the planning and conduct of the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT), which enrolled more than 35,000 men to test whether supplementation with selenium, vitamin E, or the combination could reduce the risk of prostate cancer. In spite of promising results from earlier work, the answer was no.
He was appointed chair of our genitourinary committee in 2009, after a year in the role as interim chair. His tenure has brought enormous progress and change in SWOG’s work in genitourinary cancers, and in the workflow and policies of the GU committee.
His legacy includes a committee-wide request-for-applications (RFA) process for soliciting and prioritizing new concepts, the consistent pairing of junior investigators with senior mentors, and exemplary outreach and partnerships with other SWOG committees.
His time as chair brought a long list of major publications with practice-changing results, but a simple list doesn’t really convey the extent of Dr. Thompsons involvement in these research efforts.
One example: study S0337 eventually found that in patients with non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer, instilling gemcitabine into the bladder after surgery significantly reduced patients’ chances of recurrence. The results have changed practice, but at one point, S0337 was in accrual trouble and in real danger of being closed. Dr. Thompson exercised his hands-on leadership style by applying those hands to pen, paper, and phone, writing handwritten notes and making direct calls to urologists at numerous sites asking for their help in raising the trial’s profile and accrual numbers. Thompson’s personal warmth is hard to resist. Urologists rallied, and S0337 was completed, published, and has changed practice.
Professional accomplishments of this magnitude are only possible with team science, and Dr. Thompson’s commitment to team science, and his leadership skills, are the stuff of legend.
When asked what they appreciated most about him, time and again Dr. Thompson’s colleagues spoke of his superb gifts as a leader, recognizing his ability to bring out the best in others, to instill confidence in his team members, and to make hard decisions that were good for the GU committee and good for our patients.
They also praised his extraordinary warmth, optimism, empathy, integrity, poise, professionalism, and sincerity – all characteristics abundantly evident to those of us who have been lucky enough to spend any time at all with Ian. He will be missed, personally and professionally.
One more accomplishment to note: soon after his appointment as GU chair, Dr. Thompson selected as the committee’s bladder cancer advocate the next SWOG giant I want to recognize ….
Rick Bangs, first chair of our patient advocate committee, joined SWOG as bladder cancer advocate while our advocate program was still finding its feet. A survivor of bladder cancer and other neoplasms, he had promised himself some good would come of his encounters with the disease. He has spent the years since making good on that promise.
His fellow advocates elected him chair in 2011, and after our board of governors voted in 2013 to make the advocate group a true research support committee, we formally appointed him to chair it.
Since that time, he has played the leading role in advancing our patient advocate cohort to the thoroughly professionalized group we see today, a group fully integrated into our clinical trial design and development processes.
Among his early efforts, Mr. Bangs was the primary developer of an orientation curriculum for new advocates, a key component in assembling the highly effective team we now have. From the start, he envisioned a SWOG in which advocates’ contributions were integral at all stages of clinical trial creation (remember the “Ten Key Questions Investigators Can Ask Their Patient Advocate” handout?)
He was also an early proponent of having a patient advocate weigh in on all triage reviews of new concepts, a move that has markedly improved the quality of SWOG studies.
As co-lead on the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute grant that funded the TeamScience@SWOG project, he was an author of the program to integrate patient advocates into all components of clinical research across the NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network (NCTN). He was also a key author of the TeamScience@SWOG Module 6, a methodology to help us enroll participants on our trials who more fully represent the diversity of patients with cancer.
He has long been – and remains – a leader in envisioning and implementing initiatives to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion at SWOG, and he is now driving our membership profiles project, which will allow SWOG to more accurately answer the question “who are we?”
His leadership extends beyond SWOG as well. He’s been a major force for integrating advocates across the NCTN and has served on multiple NCI steering committees, including as co-chair of the NCI’s patient advocate steering committee. His efforts have improved the NCTN in a multitude of ways.
Over the years, I’ve relied on Rick’s thoughtfulness, insight, and moral voice as part of our deliberative process in SWOG leadership meetings. We already miss his presence and his wisdom in those venues.
All of us at SWOG, and untold numbers of those who will be diagnosed with cancer in the years to come, owe a huge debt of gratitude to both Rick and Ian, two giants of SWOG.
Today, Veterans Day, I say thank you to all who have served (including West Point grad Dr. Ian Thompson).