Dr. John Hamilton, a dentist in Williston, ND, has been named the chair of the board of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN). He will provide leadership and implement corporate strategies to support evidence-based policy and legislative solutions designed to eliminate cancer as a major health problem.
“Dr. Hamilton has a deep and abiding commitment to the impact cancer has on the lives of all Americans and is an unrelenting champion of policies that will help us get the upper hand on this devastating disease,” said ACS CAN president Chris Hansen.
Hamilton has been a longtime volunteer with the American Cancer Society at the local and national levels. Also, he is a member of the ACS board of directors and a recipient of the St. George National Medal, which recognizes outstanding volunteer leadership in furthering ACS’s strategic goals and mission-driven programs.
“Almost 4,000 of my fellow North Dakotans are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, and about 1,270 residents will die from it,” Hamilton said. “My wife is a breast cancer survivor, so I know firsthand the profound impact cancer has on people’s lives. That’s why I’m passionate about fighting for these important policies to save future lives from cancer.”
Last September, 2,000 volunteers visited Washington, DC, for a day of training. Then, members of each of ASC CAN’s chapters met with their respective senators to lobby for the cause. Their efforts paid off, as at the end of 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) saw a $2.5 billion increase, which was its largest raise in 25 years, Hamilton said.
“ACS CAN was the lead organization to promote that, and we were credited with being the organization that brought that about,” Hamilton said.
These dollars are a good investment, too. Over the past 15 years, cancer death rates in the United States have dropped by about 1% each year, according to NIH, as the government organization has improved the understanding of cancer’s causes and mechanisms, improved early detection and diagnosis, developed effective treatments, and expanded knowledge of cancer prevention strategies.
ACS CAN additionally wants to expand work in palliative care for those patients who are in end-of-life situations and still going through treatment. The group is supporting the development of drugs that will keep these patients comfortable. Also, ACS CAN is supporting a bill that would help educate medical students and doctors about this care, which varies from state to state.
Furthermore, ACS CAN plans on being part of the National Cancer Moonshot announced by President Obama in last January’s State of the Union address. Led by Vice President Biden, the $1 billion initiative will coordinate disparate research efforts and accelerate the development of new detection and treatment technologies.
“We’re one of the lead agencies in the organization in providing information for the National Cancer Moonshot,” said Hamilton. “We can lend our expertise and our science-based and evidence-based knowledge so the money they appropriate is spent wisely. We have a 75-year legacy of cancer research and programs.”
All of this work on cancer isn’t as far removed from Hamilton’s work as a dentist as one would think. There is a growing body of research connecting oral health to systemic health. For example, certain oral bacteria have been connected to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. ACS CAN recognizes these connections.
“Everybody realizes the significance of the system because of genomics, the gene identification of tumors,” Hamilton said. “A lot of cancer researchers are getting away from saying it’s like lung cancer or an organ type of cancer. We’re thinking of it more in terms of a tissue disease.”
Certain types of prostate cancer have a lot in common with colon cancer, Hamilton said. So, researchers are suggesting that chemotherapy and other treatments that historically have been used for one cancer now can be used to treat other cancers as scientists identify the genetic characteristics that are found in all tumors.
Dentists, however, need to be particularly aware of oral cancer. While more than 48,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, many of them will be diagnosed in Stages III and IV, when little can be done to cure them. Early detection through dental screenings, though, can increase survival rates to 90%.
“That’s something that we do for all of our patients as part of their regular checkups. We are making patients aware of how infections, abscesses, and things like that are creating opportunities for malignancies. We also talk about the importance of HPV in causing cancer,” said Hamilton, speaking as a practicing dentist.
“We need to be educating our patients about the significance of these things,” Hamilton said. “We as practitioners need to be constantly educating ourselves too.”
In addition to supporting more funding for research and improved palliative care, ACS CAN is advocating for environmental issues such as smoke-free public spaces. And as chair of the board, Hamilton will have administrative priorities as well during his tenure.
“There’s always the internal, organizational things that you look toward,” he said. “How can we do a better job, do it more efficiently, and serve more people?”
Ultimately, though, it’s about getting dentists and other physicians the tools and perspectives they need to better take care of their patients.
“It’s important to the patients that the practitioners are made aware of these things,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes it’s easy to get busy doing other things, but you always need to be thinking in terms of patients and their health.”