• Paths of Progress Spring/Summer 2010

    Interview with Holcombe Grier, MD
    By Christine Cleary

    Yawkey Tour video 

    He has led the Jimmy Fund Clinic, done critical research in pediatric sarcomas, trained hundreds of postdoctoral fellows, and given countless families hope - both as himself and during his annual Santa Claus appearance.

    Now, after 24 years as a pediatric oncologist specializing in solid and soft tissue cancers, Holcombe Grier, MD, will transition to a part-time schedule. Currently associate chief of Pediatric Clinical Oncology at Dana-Farber/Children's Hospital Cancer Care, Grier will make the shift in June 2010.

    Here, the beloved, bow-tied doctor reflects on his experiences caring for children with cancer and their families.

    What are some lessons you give the post-doc fellows you train?

    Clinical research is so important that you need to let the facts stand on their own, not boost your findings to advance your career. I have learned as much from my fellows as they've learned from me. For example, I tend to be loud and pushy, but thanks to my colleagues I've discovered how powerful silence can be in clinical situations.

    Holcombe Grier  

    How do you help teens with cancer address their fears?

    With their parents present, I say: "Cancer stinks at any age, but especially your age. You're trying to break away from these folks, and now they're driving you to chemo."

    I also give teens a chance to ask important questions without their parents around, such as "Can I have sex?" or "Can I drink alcohol?" Most of all, I make sure they know that I think they are mature enough to discuss the hard decisions.

    What's your approach to a family if a child's cancer returns?

    When a patient relapses, there may be therapies to try and next steps to recommend. But often the prognosis has changed for the worse. I tell families the facts, and whatever their goals are – realistic or not – I honor them. Personal preference is sometimes more important than medical decision-making. We always root for the miracle, with or without anti-cancer therapy.

    How does cancer change families?

    I only know what families tell me. They say they have changed forever, yet remain the same. They ask me, "How can I say a flower is pretty, when this awful thing is happening?" I assure them that patients say this tumult gets better with time.

    Why do you play the banjo?

    I tried the guitar during the folk era of the '60s but I was usually the worst guitarist in the room. A friend gave me a banjo in college and I realized I could be the best banjo player in the room because I had no competition. In a Peanuts cartoon, Linus says, "All children should be given a banjo at birth. No one is unhappy playing the banjo."

    What will you do when you start working part-time?

    My wife and I are selling our house and moving to the Chesapeake Bay area. Aside from 12 weeks a year when I'll be back at Dana-Farber seeing patients newly diagnosed with cancer, I plan to go sailing, improve my banjo playing, learn the fiddle, read a lot of books, and watch the 100 best films ever made.

    Paths of Progress Spring/Summer 2010 Table of Contents 

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