ASCO Education
ASCO Education
Apr 5, 2022
Oncology, Etc. – Mr. Paul Goldberg: Interviewing the Interviewer (Part 1)
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Drs. David Johnson (University of Texas) and Patrick Loehrer (Indiana University) host the first of two Oncology, Etc. episodes featuring Mr. Paul Goldberg, book author, investigative reporter, and Editor and Publisher of The Cancer Letter. In part one, Mr. Goldberg reflects on his two main interests − human rights and cancer, and his early career as a journalist and novelist.

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Dr. Pat Loehrer: Hi I’m Pat Loehrer, I'm the director of the Center for Global Oncology and Health Equity here at Indiana University.

Dr. David Johnson: Hello, my name is David Johnson. I'm at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. And we've got a great guest today and we’re excited about the interview.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: Yeah, it's very timely too, I think it's terrific. Before we go on to that, are there any recent books that you've read that you want to recommend?

Dr. David Johnson: Yeah, actually, I do. It's somewhat related to our topic today. I just finished a book entitled, Presumed Guilty by Erwin Chemerinsky, who's the Dean of the Law School at the University of California, Berkeley. It's actually recommended to me by a lawyer friend.

I think most of our audience knows the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments to the Constitution are the ones that provide protection for people accused of crimes. And I think most of us are familiar with the Warren Court in the 50s and 60s, which seemed to be a very, quote-unquote liberal court that provided many of the protections that you see on TV shows, police TV shows de including the Miranda protections, but as Chemerinsky points out in his book, that really is a historical aberration, that the Supreme Court from its founding really right through today is then on the opposite side of the fence in terms of protection to the accused can many landmark rulings over the last several years, including Terry versus Ohio and City of Los Angeles vs. Ryan, have actually provided protection and sanction stop in frisk activities, limited suits against police departments to institute reform, and even provided some benefit for the use of so-called lethal chokeholds.

Smaller than I think, in light of what's happened over the last several months, really provided some insight, to me at least, about how the Supreme Court looks at the protection of the accused. I thought it was a very interesting book to read. And Chemerinsky does a great job of explaining these landmark cases in a way that simpleton like myself can understand them. So, I recommend it to you. I think you'd enjoy it.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: Yeah, there’s a book called “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. I'm not sure if you've ever had a chance to read that. It is an outstanding read. They made a movie out of it but if you get a chance to read the book, it's really terrific. Again, it talks a lot about the inequities in terms of how our court systems have prosecuted people of color for minor crimes compared to people that are in the majority here. But I think both of those would be great reads.

Dr. David Johnson: Yeah, I haven't read it, but I will.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: Yeah, it's terrific. Go for it. Going ahead in getting started, it's our great pleasure to have Mr. Paul Goldberg join us today. Anyone in oncology knows him. He is the editor of the Cancer Letter. Interestingly, he was born in Moscow and emigrated here to the United States at the age of 14, where he went to Virginia.

He got his undergraduate degree at Duke in economics. And shortly thereafter, he worked in a newspaper in Reston, Virginia, where he met his future wife. I think from there, they went to the Wichita Eagle in Kansas. His wife was actually the daughter of the founder of what was to become the Cancer Letter, Jerry Boyd. He rose to associate editor and finally editor in 1994, and publisher and editor about a decade ago.

The Cancer Letter is the go-to newspaper for us in oncology. Over 200 institutions subscribe. There's not a cancer center director in the country that does not look forward every week. One is to see if it's in there, you hope it isn't. And then if it is, you hope that there are really some platitudes in there about how wonderful you are, and then you can go ahead and read the rest of the article.

The New York Times once said that everybody who's anybody in the cancer field reads this newsletter. He's won a number of awards, including the Washington DC professional chapter of the Society of Professional Dermatologists and some Gerald Loeb awards.

His investigative work has uncovered some extraordinary events, including the Duke scandal with genomics, the ImClone scandal, as well as some of the workings of SIPRAD and MD Anderson, and I think he is really a flashlight that looks in the dark corners of our world, but also is there also to cheer on some of the accomplishments in oncology, and he knows Brawley and have written a book together, How We Do Harm.

They're also doing the history of oncology together. He's a novelist. He's a nonfiction writer, and he's an extraordinary individual. And I think we're really looking forward to spending a few minutes with you here, Paul, thank you for joining us.

Paul Goldberg: Thank you for inviting me. This is really a pleasure to spend some time with friends.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: Well, by the time this gets aired, hopefully, the crisis in Ukraine will be over. But just last week, the Russians invaded Ukraine, and I think it's very timely to hear more about this and the fact that you grew up in Moscow and Russia. Tell us a little bit about your early life, your upbringing, your family background, and what prompted your family to immigrate here to the United States?

Paul Goldberg: Well, it suddenly became possible and it was something that my father wanted to do. So, we just sort of ran as soon as we could, and certainly, I had kind of a fascinating time that I've been chewing on for many years as a novelist.

In fact, they've just turned it into a novel, which will be published not this coming summer, but the following summer, it's called The Dissident. It's about the Soviet human rights movement and it's set in 1976. By then I was here, actually. But it's kind of like material that found me and really weirdly, it's also why I’m in oncology, where I'm covering oncology.

My material kind of found me when I was in college, my drinking friend’s mother, Ludmila Alexeiava was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki group. Interestingly, also, my first book was about the Moscow Helsinki watch group, which is really the beginning of human rights monitoring, which is really a staple, let's say the beginning of the NGOs. It's a staple of world order to rely on people within the country that it’s being written about covering themselves in a way. It's kind of like free social media. And then, of course, enhanced greatly by social media. That was my beginning, but what was also interesting is that being a writer, and I really wanted to be a novelist, I did not want to then write nonfiction, but the material was so good that I had to jump in.

Then I also had to, like, temporarily at least, make a living doing something else. So, my former father-in-law, my dad at the time, my father-in-law, now my late former father-in-law, terrific guy, Jerry Boyd, just hired me to do some work for him. I started some stuff and he used to brag that he's the only guy who's ever made money off son-in-law.

Dr. David Johnson: But Paul, I'd be really interested to know, where did your interest in cancer begin? Was it with the Cancer Letter or had there been some interest prior to that?

Paul Goldberg: Well, when I was working for the Wichita Eagle, I kind of got interested, I always gravitated towards stories about things like insurance, for example, the value of life, anything that had to do with these sorts of very complicated philosophical questions.

That was kind of the beginning of my interest. That's why I didn't say, oh, no, this is too wonky. I don't want to have anything to do with this. Also, when people realize, it’s always interesting, there's a fair amount of that in oncology.

So, I was trying to find that, and just the complexity and the characters. You'll run into characters in oncology that you kind of wish to run into because you can have half an hour-long conversations or two-hour-long conversations or three-hour-long conversations with a lot of folks without really getting off-topic.

I mean, I get a lot of criticism from the kids and my staff telling me that I'm nonlinear in my thinking, but that's linear in this field. It's also once you get into questions like ethics, that's really the fundamentals of oncology, and that's also the fundamentals of my other interest, which is human rights.

It's also the artistic potential of this field is incredible. It just kind of grew on me but basically, it all began as a kind of a way to make up for unevenness in cash flow from writing books. And then it just became so great. If you want, I can tell you what the actual events were that made me just say, this is my field.

Dr. David Johnson: Yeah, I'd love to hear that, tell us.

Paul Goldberg: Two early ones. One of them was the beginning of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. I was initially taking a nap at the Senate hearing. I was editing a manuscript that was around 1992. I was editing a manuscript that got a little bit boring for me to just sort of listen to most things and I just fell asleep. And then I heard Fran Visco’s voice booming through and I had no idea who Fran Visco was, nobody had any idea who Fran Visco was. He was giving her “Men in Suits” speech, which is like the beginning of the patient's movement in breast cancer.

I kind of woke up and I pushed the button on my tape recorder and I got it. It was just unbelievably cool. I said, okay, so conversations that they had in the kitchens, wherever, there are these people who are talking about setting up a public movement, because there was never a public movement really of patients in oncology.

For the most part, it just felt a little bit boring. I started working around the corners of oncology around 1985-86, really, 5 or 6 years later, I was writing other books. And I was bored a little bit because there were a bunch of white guys making decisions behind closed doors. They stopped smoking a few years before, but there were still white guys behind closed doors.

Suddenly, this was something completely different. This was a public movement. And I could recognize the public movement because I'd seen them, I'd written about them, I did a story about them.

So, there was that. Then came up about that very same time, really roughly the same time came the NSABP scandal. The Cancer Letter was writing fairly short stories. Now, it has been around since 1973. So, there's just this incredibly rigorous device for monitoring the history of oncology, you can just crack the thing. But it was different because Jerry didn't write 5000-word stories. Sometimes he did but mostly he didn’t. But I can't really express myself briefly, I kind of have to go, and so, I started realizing that I could just return to this story over and over and over till I understood it, until everybody else got, so because of drilling, probably I must have written 40 stories on NSABP, maybe more. I don't know, over the years, maybe I'd written, but they just sort of said to me, hey, this is a field that's now politicized in a way that kind of sustains journalism. Controversy is unbelievably cool with this because here's a group of patients who are saying, we don't really care about NIH funding, in this case, but we care about just funding for breast cancer, and we want to do it our way. Let's do it through DOD. That was an amazing story to cover.

Then there's the story of Bernie Fisher, who was like the great man of oncology, getting kind of pulled through the wringer on this thing, and it was awesome. Then another thing started happening. I started going to the meetings, mostly I loved ODAC. I always loved ODAC and I still love ODAC. I haven't missed an ODAC for maybe 40 years or something. And the same goes of course, for NCAB. 

Basically, here is a discussion as a spectator sport. Oh, wow! I kind of got passionate about this whole thing. Like, covering ODAC like Dave Johnson's ODAC was hilarious. It was a comedy show. Basically, Dave was doing some really cool stuff. Really good material, not really quotable because the jokes were a little loud. Schilsky was hilarious in the ODAC. Raghavan was really funny on ODAC. And then there was Sledge. It was also very, very funny. 

So, there was this sort of a discussion of this very complicated stuff that I just started quoting. I think I must have quoted Dave's joke. I think you learned from your grandfather, a box turtle on top of a fencepost didn't get there by accident. 

Dr. David Johnson: It's correct. 

Paul Goldberg: Yeah, it became an obsession to just follow the characters. 

Dr. Pat Loehrer: But by the way, Paul, we did interview Rick Pazdur a short time ago, and Rick did not say that Dave was funny. I just want to let you know. There was no comment about that at all. So, there's just another side to this story. 

Paul Goldberg: Well, the funniest bit was when Derek Raghavan once asked, we need a translator here for southern English, why does it need a box turtle on a fence and it gets there by accident? I don't think Dave explained that that time, but I have to look at my story because I would just get into these digressions of this. I think that was also where Rich Schilsky invented the term, toxic placebo. 

Dr. David Johnson: Yes, we had a study, we had to review that showed, frankly, that the placebo was actually better in some ways than the actual alleged, like the drug but with a lot of side effects. 

So, Paul, you've been in the midst of a lot of really interesting stories, some would say controversial ones. ImClone, Pat mentioned earlier, the Duke scandal, where do you get your information? Without divulging. 

Paul Goldberg: Well, some of them I can't really divulge. But some of them I can. The beauty of the internet now is that people can come up with an email address and send me stuff and I can actually communicate with them, and I don't even have to protect my source because I have no idea who my source is. 

There was one of these stories you've mentioned, I'm not going to say which one where I could just sort of dial in the question. Like, I could just email this person whose nickname could be Mickey Mouse. I mean, I think that was Mickey Mouse. So, I can just send the question to Mickey Mouse, what happened at XYZ? I'd like to see a picture of XYZ, and then Mickey Mouse would send me something. 

Dr. Pat Loehrer: This is like all the president's men? 

Paul Goldberg: It's a lot like that. It's much easier because you don't have to count back or whatever and hang up, although I've done that it's kind of funny. Yeah, sometimes things show up anonymously. 

Dr. Pat Loehrer: Well, that concludes part one of our intriguing interview with the cancer letter Editor Paul Goldberg. Stay tuned for part two of this conversation, where we'll learn more about the literary works of Mr. Goldberg, who's developed these works outside of the Cancer Letter. 

We’ll see and hear about his incredibly important insight into the Russian Ukrainian conflict and much more. Thank you to all our listeners for tuning into Oncology, Etc. This is an ASCO education podcast where we will talk just about anything and everything. If you have an idea for a topic or a guest you'd like to see on the show, please email us at 


Thank you for listening to the ASCO education podcast. To stay up to date with the latest episodes. Please click subscribe. Let us know what you think by leaving a review. For more information, visit the comprehensive education center at education that 

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience and conclusions. Guest statements on the podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO the mention of any product service organization activity or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. 

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