David S. Alberts, M.D., has spent 40 years fighting cancer — and he’s not done yet. At age 74, he’s the full-time Regents Professor of Medicine, Pharmacology, Nutritional Science, and Public Health at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. On July 1, 2013, he stepped down after a decade as director of the UA Cancer Center, when Andrew Kraft, M.D., also a Jewish physician, took the helm.
Back in 1972, Sydney Salmon, M.D., himself recently recruited by the UA College of Medicine, “kept calling me at the [University of California], San Francisco, asking me to help build a cancer center” at the UA, says Alberts. “I told him I couldn’t move to Tucson. When we finally decided to move here, my wife, [Heather], cried for six months. Now she’s Tucson’s biggest advocate.”
When Alberts and his family came to Tucson in 1975, they joined Congregation Chaverim, which at that time had only 25 families. “My wife, Heather, started and directed their Hebrew school for several years and our family hosted services in the absence of an on-site rabbi,” says Alberts. “Both of our children, Tim Alberts and Sabrina Plattner, became B’nai Mitzvah at Chaverim. Three of their children have been students of Rabbi Stephanie Aaron. So, Chaverim has had a big, positive impact on the Alberts/Plattner family.”
At the new UA Cancer Center, “I asked Syd [Salmon] what he wanted me to focus on and he said, ‘the pelvis.’ For me, that was colon and ovarian cancer,” says Alberts, whose work had previously centered on hematologic malignancies (for example, myeloma), which were Salmon’s cancer specialties.
Twenty years later, “I emotionally couldn’t take it anymore. We had great tools for prevention but not treatment so I specialized in prevention,” says Alberts, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Milwaukee. “My father had colon cancer at 36, my mother died of breast cancer at 72, and my grandmother died of breast cancer at 85.
At age 56, he says, “my father developed an oral cancer at exactly the same spot where he held his cigar. If you’ve had one cancer your chances of a second cancer are 15-20 percent. It’s even more important for survivors [to pay attention] to exercise and diet.”
Alberts is currently writing a book on cancer survivorship. The third edition of his “Fundamentals of Cancer Prevention” was published in January 2014 and is a best-selling text in the field. “I’m very proud of it,” says Alberts, as he is of the UA Cancer Center, “one of the top programs in terms of federal funding in the country.” He has served as chair of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Oncologic Drug Advisory Committee and as a member of the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors.
Family history has always been part of Alberts’ determination to change the cancer landscape. His wife is a breast cancer survivor. “Unfortunately,” he says, “I’ve had a disproportionate number of Ashkenazi women patients” because of their higher incidence of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. “This is a scourge for Ashkenazi Jewish women.”
Every American Ashkenazi Jewish woman, at least by age 35, should be tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which mean a higher risk of developing ovarian and breast cancer, says Alberts. “Ovarian cancer is a Western disease [stemming from] a high-fat, high-dairy sedentary lifestyle,” he says. “In Asia there’s very little ovarian cancer and in Africa it’s almost unheard of. It’s a rather uncommon disease. Two or more pregnancies reduce the risk by 50 percent”; for five or more years oral contraceptives reduce the risk by 50 percent.
Over the years, his work has helped to increase the median survival rate for women with ovarian cancer from nine months to six years, although 80 percent of women with ovarian cancer “still have advanced stage 3 or 4 at diagnosis,” notes Alberts.
For women with advanced ovarian cancer, following chemotherapy and surgery, diets tend to change for the worse, with patients gaining 10 to 15 pounds, he says. “It’s very tough treatment to get them to remission. With one-on-one nutritional counseling and psychological reinforcement, a whole lifestyle change” can be made. “Nutritional counseling, along with physical activity, is at the forefront of a new research model, specifically for women with ovarian cancer.”
Alberts also notes, “the vast majority of ovarian cancer is really tubal cancer. Instead of taking the ovaries out and throwing younger women into instant menopause, we can remove the fallopian tubes,” he says, taking out the ovaries post-childbearing age.
One study by the Women’s Health Initiative, funded for 10 years by the National Institutes of Health and including 50,000 women, found that women over 55 who ate a low-fat diet and engaged in moderate physical exercise had a 40 percent reduction in ovarian cancer, says Alberts. For men with colon cancer, physical activity following treatment contributes to a 50-70 percent reduction in recurrence. “Gender makes a huge difference in colon cancer,” he says. “Men get polyps much more often” than women.
The mainstay of Alberts’ work has been to further the prevention of women’s cancers. “Against all odds,” he says, “we extended the UA Cancer Center to Phoenix. It will open next year and be the most advanced clinical cancer facility in the Southwest. It was my lifeblood. The Tucson center is the state’s designated cancer center, but you can’t have that national cancer institute designation without the clinical capability in Phoenix. The research base will always be in Tucson.”
With his colleagues — and for his children, his grandchildren, and all of those struggling with cancer — says Alberts, “the most exciting part of my career has been to develop strategies to prevent the recurrence of the disease itself.”