Plain talk on cancer

Health education everyone can understand
Dr. Christopher Pennell

Among U.S. racial and ethnic groups, Black males have among the highest rates of prostate cancer; the same is true of breast cancer among Black women. Minnesotans “experience disproportionately poor health and high rates of illness and death” among communities of color and other underserved populations, says a University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center fact sheet.

Talk about health is too often avoided, especially by members of communities of color and the aging community. But recently, cancer was the lunchtime discussion topic at the Cora McCorvey Health and Wellness Center at the Heritage Park YMCA. Held April 26, it was the first in a planned “Lunch & Learn” series.

Around 45 persons ate lunch and listened to University of Minnesota Associate Professor Christopher Pennell, who talked about cancer and took audience questions. He also is on the Masonic Cancer Center staff, where his specialty is “investigating novel strategies for immunotherapy” and developing “personalized medicine approaches for treating cancer.”

“I work with mice all the time,” joked Pennell before asking the audience whether they are a family member, friend, coworker, or otherwise acquainted with someone with cancer. Nearly everyone indicated by raising hands that they know or knew someone who had cancer or currently has it.

Cancer “affects all of us directly or indirectly,” said Pennell, who revealed that both his parents had it, and he is himself a skin cancer survivor. “One out of every two men and one out of every three women in the United States will develop cancer in their lifetime,” he continued. “It is a disease we all have to deal with.”

There are an approximately 200 different types of cancer, said Pennell, who used simple analogies and personal anecdotes during his 20-minute talk to explain the disease. Every cell in our bodies has a specific purpose — they are “individual units, but they work together inside the entire body.

“They protect us from the outside…from the inside. There are 210 distinct [types of cells] in the human body, [about] 10 trillion cells — a lot of cells.”
The cells “follow a series of instructions called DNA. If one of these cells decides not to obey the rules, you can get cancer,” said the doctor. “Cancer is a very uncontrolled process. [It] is the result of a cell that’s gone crazy… It gets bigger and increases in numbers.”

He also briefly explained the two main differences in a tumor: If it’s benign it does not mean cancer, but if it’s malignant, it is because it spreads and is “hard to get rid of” as a result.

“The whole point of the talk was to strike up a conversation” on cancer, he told the MSR afterwards. By using simple language in talking about cancer, “I find that a lot of these concepts are not difficult. If you can use an analogy that people can understand, then you can get your points across. Then you can start asking deeper questions. People are smart…”

“Conceptually, cancer is a weed,” said Pennell to illustrate the use of such analogies.
“Dr. Pennell broke it down to a level that people understand the different types of cancer,” noted YMCA at Heritage Park Director Henry Crosby. “The feedback we got is that it was a good forum.”

The next “Lunch & Learn” session, which will discuss Black men and prostate cancer, is scheduled for 12 noon on May 31. “I’m really excited about it,” said Crosby. “Connecting our community with academia is huge. They want to be here, and we want them here. We are trying to make that easy.”