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A Cure for Cancer Confusion
A Hopkins oncology surgeon teams up with a cancer survivor to produce a widely circulated resource guide.

blank Pamela Ouyang and Nisha Chandra-StrobosCharles Balch says his cancer book aims to help patients become better partners in treatment decisions.

Few words instill more fear than You have cancer. The moment a physician utters them, patients almost always have a visceral response. Throughout his 32-year career, surgical oncologist Charles Balch has seen patients and their families unravel at the news hundreds of times. “People assume that cancer is a death sentence, but for many cancers, treatment prolongs life and can even eradicate disease,” he says. “There’s so much help available—it’s just a matter of knowing where to find it.”

Enter Cancer Guide: A Treatment and Facilities Guide for Patients and Their Families. Published by Patient Resource, the 178-page booklet made its debut two years ago. Balch is medical editor of the free guide, intended to help newly diagnosed cancer patients better understand their cancer and link them to other resources.

Brainchild of Patient Resource publisher Linette Atwood, a breast cancer survivor who lost a husband, father and sister to cancer, the guide is the only free print publication to provide a listing of every cancer treatment facility nationwide (1,400 in all) and cancer-specific advocacy group, along with contact information. Highly acclaimed, the patient-friendly booklet derives much of its content from various cancer organizations. Since its debut, more than a million copies have been distributed.

Atwood, a patient of one of Balch’s colleagues, approached Balch several years ago about serving as the guide’s editor. “It’s turned out to be the most delightful project I’ve ever worked on,” he says. A leading expert in melanoma and breast cancer, Balch is the hospital’s director for Clinical Trials and Outcomes Research and founding editor in chief of Annals of Surgical Oncology.

Written in simple language, Cancer Guide is updated annually and distributed free to thousands of cancer centers, doctors’ offices and cancer organizations nationwide. The guide includes vital information on how to choose the correct initial treatment; find the best treatment facilities and locate the top specialists for specific types of cancer; locate and participate in clinical drug trials; and manage financial issues, including the insurance maze.

At the same time, Cancer Guide stresses the importance of getting a second and even third opinion and participating in clinical trials. Cancer survivor stories are wedged between sections, providing insight, encouragement and hope.

“We want this book to empower newly diagnosed patients to become their own advocates,” says Balch, “because a well-informed patient stands a better chance of improved survival and quality of life.”

Balch and Atwood are now editing a stand-alone breast cancer guide, to debut at the end of the year, in collaboration with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “They’re helping us reach women who may not know how to get to an oncologist’s office,” he says.

Meanwhile, with so much progress in cancer research and treatments, says Balch, one of the biggest challenges of the book will be keeping current. “We’ve already begun targeting cancers using molecular markers and customizing treatment based on the biology of the disease,” he says. Still, he adds, most people overestimate the mortality of their cancer. “Our goal is to become better partners with patients, help them get the best possible treatment and ultimately ease their emotional distress.”   

Copies of Cancer Guide are available through




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