Live blog, TEDxColumbus

Claudia Kirsch – Live Blog

2011 TEDxColumbus
I had an immediate affinity for Claudia Kirsch. Like Kirsch, my background is in science, but I’m also really interested in art and creative expression. Kirsch’s angle is as a radiologist: she studies cancer, specifically cancer in the head and neck.

Maybe it’s Kirsch’s interest in art that makes her the keen observer that she is. Her talk is all about how careful attention to detail (and also careful scientific research) can save lives.

Kirsch’s main pathway into this discussion is through the science. She’s studied these kinds of cancer for a while. She has some good news: these types of cancers are decreasing because of lifestyle changes, and treatments are getting better. The bad news: HPV can also cause these kinds of cancer, and instances of cancer caused by HPV have gone way up.

These HPV-caused cancers might also be particularly dangerous. Kirsch explained how tumors in the head and neck can grow along your nerves, eventually “hitchhiking” down the pathways to the brain. The image of these cancer cells slowly but surely, without any means of their own transportation, working their way undetected into a victim’s brain is a terrifying one.

And hitchhiking tumors are particularly dangerous: they are more likely to come back and more likely to spread to surprising areas of the body.

“Hitchhiking” cancer can also hide from detection where normal tumors can’t. Kirsch says that cancer screenings, because of these kinds of traveling cancers, have to include imaging of the nerve routes that hitchhiking cells can follow.

Kirsch discovered this by looking very carefully at the nerves in some of her own cancer patients. One day it struck her: the reason these patients were still sick was because their cancer had quietly hitchhiked across their nerves after initial treatment. She now knew where she had to look to make sure this didn’t happen to future patients.

It’s this change in cancer screening and detection that gives Kirsch the theme of her talk: we see what we know. She explains that, now that we know to look along nerve pathways for cancer, we can find these kinds of hitchhikers before they kill.

It’s a hell of a lesson: if what we know can change what we see, it can also save lives.