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The Story of Cancer; New Role for Greg Louganis; Finding Your Voice

Aired March 5, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hello and welcome. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

First up: they are identical twins. But one of them got cancer and one did not. Imagine that. Their story changed the history of cancer treatment.

And, Greg Louganis, the diver -- you remember him -- Olympic gold medalist winner. But he also had several personal struggles, including HIV, abuse and depression. We're going to talk to him about his new challenge.

Plus, the "Human Factor." Today, this man is known for helping to preserve the lives of big cats. But when he was young, his teachers thought he was mentally handicap. He cured himself by talking to the jaguars. We'll explain.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: You may not know this, but cancer will strike down one in four Americans. And there are smart people who will tell you that we are losing the war on cancer. But instead today, I want to talk about just how far we've come.

You know, even at the end of World War II, doctors had very few weapons against cancer. You could cut it out. You could blast it with radiation, with terrible side effects. But there was no medicine.

And then one day in 1947, a little 2-year-old boy came to the doors at Children's Hospital in Boston.


GUPTA (voice-over): Robert Sandler had leukemia. It had broken through his bones. His twin Elliot watched the ambulance take him away.

Back then, the disease meant death in a matter of weeks, maybe months. But at Children's Hospital, Dr. Sidney Farber was on to something -- a kind of magic potion that was the first chemotherapy drug. Robert Sandler was in the first group to receive it.

Here's his mother more than 50 years later in a family video.

HELEN SANDLER KOSS, ROBERT & ELLIOT'S MOTHER: Every day to the hospital by streetcar, by bus, because we didn't have a car.

GUPTA: Imagine the jubilation when it worked. Within weeks, Robert was back on his feet, back with the family -- Christmas, 1948, still doing well. But it didn't last.

SANDLER KOSS: And he had one month to go before he died.

GUPTA: Robert died in the summer of 1949, nearly two full years after cancer struck -- the scientific triumph that never did trump a family's pain.

SANDLER KOSS: That's my bad memories of losing my son. After having him declared cure because they used him as a guinea pig.


GUPTA: I first heard the story from Dr. Sid Mukherjee. He's a cancer specialist in New York who's written this magnificent book, a real history of cancer and cancer treatment. It's called "The Emperor of All Maladies."


GUPTA: A doctor writes a 600-page book. I mean, we're trained to write, you know, short, concise things. This is quite an undertaking for you. What prompted it?

DR. SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE, AUTHOR, "THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES": Well, I mean, it was really prompted by a question that kept coming back to me when I was in training in cancer medicine. And my patients would keep coming back to me and asking this question, which is, you know, what is it that we are battling? What is its form? When did it start? What is its origin?

And one particular woman really asked me, "You know, I'm willing to go on," she said. "But I really want to know what is cancer -- what cancer is, and what its story is."

GUPTA: At that time, what did you tell her?

MUKHERJEE: Well, my first impression was to start telling her that, first of all, cancer is not one disease, but a whole family of diseases. And there are -- you know, there are different incarnations of it. It's very diverse. And yet, it's undeniable that there's a biological parallel that runs through all these diseases.

And at the most fundamental level of cancer is the abnormal growth of cells -- cells that can't stop growing.

GUPTA: You know, sometimes in television, it's hard to get our editors and producers to buy into a story about something like cancer or about something like HIV/AIDS or something that they think the audience is just not going to find palatable. When you were meeting with your publishers, first, and you said, I want to write a biographer of cancer -- what was the reception?

MUKHERJEE: The publishers were unbelievably receptive. One has to begin by accepting the numbers. You know, one in two men, and one in three women in America will face the disease personally directly. It was a fascinating thing. Here's something that is going to affect each and every one of our lives. And yet you know so little about it in the public sphere, in its history.

GUPTA: Why? Why is that?

MUKHERJEE: Well, part of it is I think there's a reaction, you know, there's a lot of denial. We don't want to hear it. It's the big "C."

I told a story in the book of Fanny Rosenow, this breast cancer advocate who, in the 1950s, who calls up "The New York Times" and she says, you know, I'd like to place an advertisement for survivors of breast cancer. And "The Times" gets on the phone and says, well, you know, Ms. Rosenow, we can't print the word breast and cancer in "The New York Times." What if we said this was a survivor's group for women with diseases of the chest wall?

So, this is the 1950. Now, you know, today, you can't open any newspaper without seeing cancer somewhere in the newspaper and yet there is distinctly that same visceral reaction.

GUPTA: You decided to dedicate the book to a boy. Tell me how that came about and what you learned afterwards.

MUKHERJEE: I became obsessed in writing the book and finding the stories of patients, historical patients. One of the stories was: who was the first kid who was being treated for leukemia by Sidney Farber? I thought I would find in Boston since he was in Boston. I find his name amazingly when I went to India and I found it to a friend -- I mean, someone referred me and had kept a log.

GUPTA: A log from those --



MUKHERJEE: So his name turned out to be Robert Sandler. I then --

GUPTA: R.S. Yes. It was R.S. in the --

MUKHERJEE: R.S., exactly. It was R.S. It was called R.S. in the papers. I figured out that R.S. was Robert Sandler and had a picture of him because this friend, this biographer had a cut out a picture in India and kept it in his scrapbook (ph).

So, then I dedicated the book to Robert Sandler. I found out where he lived using the phone book from 1948, went to his house. But, of course, everything had changed. Two weeks after the book had been published, I get a phone call and it's his twin brother on the line, Elliott Sandler. And he was -- he was moved to tears.

He said, you know, I didn't know this book was written. And I opened the book and I saw a picture of myself and my twin brother who I lost. So, it was an incredible completion. It was a journey finishing for me. It's really an incredible story.


GUPTA: And coming up, you know what? We tracked down Elliott Sandler as well, Robert's twin brother. You are going to see him just a minute, 60 years later. He has some remarkable memories of what happened in those days. The book was still a revelation for him.

And later in the show, we are going to meet one of the greatest athletes of all time. I think that's fair to say. Greg Louganis, the diver, doing something now were going to tell you, that he wouldn't let himself do for more than two decades.

Stay tuned.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD.

I have been talking with this amazing guy, Dr. Sid Mukherjee. He's a specialist in treating cancer. He's written this amazing story of the disease. And we decided to bring him back for a second round.


GUPTA: And joining me from New York, Dr. Sid Mukherjee and Elliott Sandler, whose twin brother Robert was treated in the very first trial of chemotherapy drug back in 1947.

Did you know throughout your life your brother's role in history?

ELLIOT SANDLER, ROBERT'S TWIN BROTHER: I had no idea until actually recently until the book came out. I had no idea.

GUPTA: You dedicated the book to Robert Sandler. There's a lot of patients, obviously, in your book that you told their stories. Why Robert in particular?

MUKHERJEE: Robert was the -- was really part of the first cohort of children to be treated with chemotherapy by Sidney Farber in Boston in 1947. And he had a brief response to the drug and then relapsed and unfortunately died soon after.

But what's amazing about this story, Sanjay, is that by adding more combinations of the same kinds of drugs, eventually, this disease that Robert had, childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, became 80 percent curable by the mid-1960s and particularly by the mid-1970s. And so, it was an enormous victory for pediatric cancer.

And this was this victory actually that propelled the idea that cancer could be curable. It really was a beacon of hope. And Richard Nixon, in launching the war on cancer in 1971 was, you know, really acknowledged in some sense the fact that this victory had already occurred in childhood lymphoblastic leukemia.

So, Robert is an iconic patient.

GUPTA: Elliott, as Dr. Mukherjee is describing this, do -- I know, obviously, you were twin brothers. So, you were very, very young. But do you remember anything of those times?

SANDLER: Oh, yes, surprisingly so. The things that he was dead on in this book -- absolutely. I can remember the hospital. I remember the hospital wards.

They didn't have curtains as we know them today. They used to put up curtains, four of them, around the bed so that you wouldn't see the patient in the pain.


SANDLER: I can remember the nights my mother used to hold my brother and rock him because he was in so much pain.

We were very close. I would try to keep him from crying and try to make him happy. And like I said, I remember a lot of things as if they were yesterday. Remember being in the train going to the hospital. You take a trolley, and then you take what we used to call the elevator, which is actually a train.

And my mother would -- if we could get in the front car, I can remember her setting my brother and I up by the door so we could watch the train tracks go back. And I'll never forget the clickety-clack, you know, da-dat, da-dat, dat of the tracks.

GUPTA: Really seared into your memory for obvious reasons. He's the one who got cancer.

Did you ever think, as his twin brother why me or why not me?

SANDLER: Oh. I very rarely do the "what if, could have, would have or should have" except in this one instance because all of my life -- all of my life -- I wondered why him and not me? In fact, when I first talked to Dr. -- to Sid here, he made it clear to me, I asked him point-blank, why me -- you know, why him and not me. And what was special?

And, you know, he told me it was a cell that went berserk. And I've often wondered, what if he had been alive, would he be my best friend? Would he still be my best friend? What would we have done? Because we were identical.

GUPTA: It's incredible to think about. And, you're -- you know, you have such a unique experience in so many ways.

I appreciate, Elliot, you sharing and taking some time to share that with us and our audience. Dr. Mukherjee, I've said it before, I'll say it again, it's an amazing book. Everybody should read it, if you want to know about cancer, what has happened with this disease, and then scientific achievement.

Thank you both for joining us.

SANDLER: Thank you.

MUKHERJEE: Thank you so much.


GUPTA: Do you remember Greg Louganis? Well, the people who watched the sport said he was perfect. And I'll tell you what, though? His life away from the pool was anything but.

There's a whole new twist in Greg Louganis' story. We're going to ask him about it. That's next.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

You know, there aren't many athletes that have come close to perfecting their sport than Greg Louganis. Grace, power, precision, you name it and five Olympic medals. There were bumps along the way.

At the '88 Games, Louganis hit his head. He hit it hard. Thirty-five minute and 38 stitches later, he won the gold medal.

We didn't know it then, but Louganis had HIV, a secret he kept from all but his closest friends until writing a memoir. He also told the world that he was gay and he had been abused.

He's touched a lot of people with the story, but now, he's sharing a part of himself that he's never shared before. Take a look.


GREG LOUGANIS, FOUR-TIME OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: There's two more minutes. You can do it, Judy (ph), come on! Five, four, three, two, one -- ah!

The reason why I got into coaching is I felt that I had something to offer.

Reach back a little and take (INAUDIBLE) OK?

ALLIE ROBINSON, COACHED BY GREG LOUGANIS: When my mom told me he was an Olympic diver, I was really excited.

CLAY PINCKNEY, COACHED BY GREG LOUGANIS: One thing I really benefit from Greg is that he's really good at helping you with the mental aspect of diving.

LOUGANIS: I was taught visualization when I was 3 years old. That was my first performance on stage. It took me five tries. The fourth try I almost got it but there was a slight hesitation I wasn't comfortable. So, I went back for the fifth time and then it was fluid (ph).

I don't miss competing because that's not really who I was. You know, I was a performer first. So, I miss performing but, you know, in coaching, you have to be somewhat of a performer, too.


GUPTA: And joining me from Fullerton, California, is Greg Louganis.

Welcome to the show. Great to see you.

LOUGANIS: Great to see you.

GUPTA: How are you?

LOUGANIS: Things are going really well. Doing really well, pretty healthy.

GUPTA: I know you've been very busy. You know, you were -- people always sort of marveled the fact that you were essentially away from the sport for 15 years or so. Why are you back now?

LOUGANIS: Well, Steve Foley, the high performance director of USA diving, he met with me last year and he said, how do we get you back into diving? I said, ask. He said, you've never been asked? I said, no, and, you know, I haven't been around diving for close to actually 20 years now. And it's great to be back.

GUPTA: You said you wouldn't coach, you didn't coach. Now, you're coaching. I mean, people look at you and they say, you know, he was the greatest diver.

Is that something you can teach? Or is it frustrating to try and teach somebody when you were at the level that you were?

LOUGANIS: You know, when I was -- when I was diving, if I went right into coaching right after I retired from diving, I think I would have been really frustrated. And then I started training dogs. And they listen, you know, they give you unconditional love. They're great, you know?

But I needed that time in training dogs for, you know, dog agility, competing on a national level, and the patience and just learning about behavior, learning about structure, learning about movement.

GUPTA: Right.

LOUGANIS: And it's been a great process. Now, I can bring all of those experiences into -- into coaching diving, which has been a wonderful journey.

GUPTA: It's interesting, Greg, because people say the perfect 10. And I will just tell you honestly, I've always been a big admirer of yours. And I always watch the Olympics.

But to say that you're the best, that you're perfect, you got the best score that you could possibly get -- I mean, did you -- did you feel the weight of that? And did you feel perfect when you emerged from the pool?

LOUGANIS: No, absolutely not. I mean, perfection is something to strive for, but it's never obtained, you know? Even though like at the 1982 world championships, I did a 1 1/2, and I got straight 10 across the board. Well, that dive today might get 9 1/2s.

But, you know, you're always striving. It's always changing. It's always evolving. You know, the technology is getting better, the awareness is getting better.

So, I was never ever satisfied with my performance. It was always moving forward and trying to do better than you did before.

GUPTA: That's great advice. Very inspiring. You have many Olympic medals.

I'm just curious, where do you put them? Where do you have them in your house?

LOUGANIS: Well, I gave one of my Olympic medals to Jeannie White, Ryan White's mother, the young boy who died of AIDS.

And I gave -- because he was my inspiration. He was my buddy in '88. I wanted to share that Olympic experience with him. But they wouldn't allow him into the country in 1988 in Seoul, Korea, because of his HIV status.


LOUGANIS: But when I hit my head on the board, he was my inspiration to get through because I knew he was fighter and I knew that I would have to fight through that competition in order to be successful.

GUPTA: Thanks for sharing that, Greg. Great speaking with you. People are excited to see you again after so many years. So, thanks for being on the show.

LOUGANIS: Sure, my pleasure.

GUPTA: Absolutely fascinating guy.

You know, recently on the show, we introduced you to our new six- pack, the six-person triathlon team of viewers. They're going to be training alongside me for the next six months, pretty audacious challenge. Well, today, we've got an update on Nina Lovel. Take a listen. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA (voice-over): She's the oldest member of the 2011 six- pack, but don't let that fool you. Nina Lovel has the energy of a woman decades younger.

(on camera): You're on the record as saying 58 -- 28 is the new 58, or 58 is the new 28.

NINA LOVEL, MEMBER OF THE 2011 6-PACK: Fifty-eight is the new 28.

GUPTA: And people always say 60 is the new 30 or 40.


GUPTA: You really feel that way? You're embracing that?

LOVEL: Absolutely.

GUPTA: What does that mean?

LOVEL: It means that I want to feel better and better the older I get. You can tell by my license plate frame how excited I am about this triathlon.

PAUL FLINCHBAUGH, SWIMMING COACH, BARRY COLLEGE: What I want you to focus in on this time is a little stronger press on your chest that's going to pick your hips up a little bit and get your heels closer to the surface of the water.

GUPTA (voice-over): Coach Paul Flinchbaugh has Nina swim different drills during her lesson. She works on keeping her head in the water and her breathing regular.

LOVEL: I'm convinced I can do it, but I'm a long way on being able to do it. I know I have my work cut out for me to be able to complete it. But I think I can. But it's not in the bag. Not in the bag yet.


GUPTA: In SGMD, we're going to continue with the theme of people overcoming odds. A big cat expert who overcame his severe stuttering by talking to animals. You got to see this story. Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, he joins us next.



GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

As you probably know by now, "The King's Speech" recently won four Oscars. And through the story of King George VI of Britain, it put the spotlight on stuttering. Well, today, we decided to show you an extraordinary story -- a young boy growing up with a severe stutter who found a remarkable way to cure it. Take a look.


GUPTA (voice-over): You're looking at the jaguar. Few people are as familiar with the animal's fate than this man, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz.

DR. ALAN RABINOWITZ, PRESIDENT AND CEO, PANTHERA: Sixty percent of their habitat is gone. They still range throughout 18 countries, but they're killed on site.

GUPTA: He launched Panthera. His mission: to save the jaguar and its peers.

RABINOWITZ: We felt strongly that there have to be something focusing only on the world's great cats 24/7.

GUPTA: But what's most fascinating is how his love for the jaguar began.

RABINOWITZ: Growing up, I had a very, very severe stutter. And I -- and I couldn't speak. It was so severe that I would get these very intense blocks, and my mouth would freeze up, go into something called frozen mouth.

GUPTA: That is until he started talking to animals.

RABINOWITZ: I could not talk to the adult world because there was too much expectation put on me, too much impatience. But when I turned to the animals, I could speak.

GUPTA: Experts say between 70 percent and 80 percent of children who stutter will recover spontaneously. For the minority who don't, becoming what's known as a fluent speaker takes various therapies.

(on camera): So, you have to focus on not stuttering. I mean, are you consciously thinking about it as you're talking to me?

RABINOWITZ: Yes, not as much as I used to have to do.

GUPTA (voice-over): For Dr. Rabinowitz, his therapy was the jaguar.

RABINOWITZ: Once I found those big cats and found these big powerful animals locked inside of their cages, locked in their own bodies, unable to get out, I felt that was like me. So, I always would go to their cage and talked to them. And I promised that if I ever got my voice, I would try to be their voice.


GUPTA: That's exactly what he's doing. He's their voice now.

If you missed any part of today's show, be sure to check out my podcast, Also, set your DVR, 7:30 a.m. Eastern.

And as always, thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

More news on CNN starts right now.