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Robert Sandler: Cancer Pioneer; Man's Best Friend; Savor Your Holiday Traditions

Aired December 24, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Merry Christmas, everybody. Happy Hanukkah. And thanks for being with us this morning. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything just tasted better when my grandma was around.

GUPTA (voice-over): Waking up on a special morning? A secret recipe for lasting memories.


GUPTA: Story about a man and his dog that will warm anybody's heart.

Plus, it's my turn in the hot seat.

(on camera): I'm a neurosurgeon.

(voice-over): Stories that I never shared before until now.


GUPTA: But, first, 40 years ago this past Friday, December 23rd, President Richard Nixon declared the war on cancer.


RICHARD NIXON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: And I hope that in the years ahead, that we may look back on this day and this action as being the most significant action taken during this administration.


GUPTA: President Nixon had big expectations and we have come a long way since 1971. But, still, even today, cancer is going to strike down one in four Americans. There are smart people who may tell you up front that we may be losing the war on cancer.

But this morning I want to talk about our successes rather than failures. At the end of World War II, doctors had very few weapons against cancer, we could cut it out, you could blast it with radiation and got terrible side effect, but there wasn't medicine, good medicine. Then in one day in 1947, a 2-year-old boy came through the door at children's hospital in Boston. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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 about this story from Dr. Sid Mukherjee. He's cancer specialist in New York who has written an amazing book, a real history of cancer and cancer treatment. It's called "Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer."


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?

SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE, AUTHOR, "THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES": 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 roster.

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: We tracked down Elliott Sandler as well, that's Robert's twin brother. He has some remarkable memories of what happened in those days 60 years ago.


GUPTA: 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 it 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 was 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've often wondered why him and not me? In fact, when I first talked 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: I should point out the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, which is the largest organization of doctors who treat cancer patients, they have a vision for the next 10 years in the war on cancer. It looks something like this: designing smarter and faster clinical trials that will let cancer patients benefit from new therapies sooner, identifying targeted therapies that will benefit the most patients and improving of electronic medical records to better match cancer patients with clinical trials that target their specific cancers.

So, a lot to be done. A lot of people hopefully going to benefit.

Up next, though, a story of healing. Got an Iraq vet and one special dog, real treatment for PTSD.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) GUPTA: You know, last weekend, we watched as the last soldiers rolled out of Iraq. I was there back in 2003.

They say the war is over, but I heard it echo when I met a former soldier named Jeff Mitchell. He did two tours of duty in Iraq. But coming home was a struggle. The damage he suffered was on the inside.

And it turned out what he needed was a friend who could really understand him.


GUPTA (voice-over): The story begins a long time ago, with a boy and his mother.

CAROL MITCHELL, JEFF'S MOTHER: You never expect to have a child and send them to war.

GUPTA: The boy becomes a man. And then comes 9/11, and the Army is calling his name.

C. MITCHELL: I do remember crying, pleading, begging. Then it got to the point where you have to support what they want to do.

GUPTA: Jeff rolled through Baghdad in 2003. He did two tours of duty, fighting in the desert.

When he comes home, there are violent outbursts, heavy drinking, a stay in rehab, and finally a diagnosis: severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

JEFF MITCHELL, ARMY VETERAN WITH PTSD: I never left my room. Drinking the entire time I was awake. So there wasn't a whole lot there.

Come here.

GUPTA: But here, it gets better. You see, this story has a girl. Jeff gets involved with a group called Paws4Vets and he meets Tazzy (ph). She had been picked up running wild in Afghanistan. She was psychological wreck.

JEFF MITCHELL: There is six to eight guys, probably eight dogs. The first thing that she did was find a corner and get as far into that corner as she could.

I could sit here and pet a dog all day.

GUPTA: As you can see, in mine months, Tazzy has come a long way. Jeff, too. It's obvious he's still on edge, but Tazzy makes his life easier.

Someone walks up behind them, they'll give Jeff a nudge. When the dark thoughts start to cascade, Tazzy is there to stem the flow.

(on camera): Can Tazzy tell? J. MICHELL: It will be something as simple as her coming over to me. And whatever else may be going through my mind, just, you know, gets knocked down a notch or two.

GUPTA (voice-over): It may not sound like much. But with Tazzy, Jeff gets out of the house. Even to public events like this one for Paws4Vets.

(on camera): You think about all that modern medicine has to offer, and in Jeff's case it wasn't enough, it sounds like.


GUPTA: But then this dog comes into his life and seems to help a lot.

C. MITCHELL: Oh, more than a lot. She has saved him. She absolutely --

GUPTA: You believe that?

C. MITCHELL: Absolutely know that she has saved him.

J. MITCHELL: You done showing off?


GUPTA: Now, it's worth pointing out Paws4Vets provided Tazzy like all its dogs to no cost to Jeff and his family. They get by strictly on donations and trained now more than 200 service dogs for returning veterans.

Happy holidays, Jeff.

Up next, the sweet taste of nostalgia.


GUPTA: I have to tell you, my kids love that movie, "Ratatouille." Before you sit down to a big family meal this weekend, we have tips on how to create those long-lasting memories.


GUPTA: You know, taste and smell help us to form some of our most lasting memories. When you think back your own childhood and maybe this time of year, particularly, the holidays, the first thing you probably think of are those sweetest of sweets that your grandmother used to make perhaps.

Here to talk more about this is Kat Kinsman. She's managing editor of CNN's "Eatocracy" blog.

Welcome back to the program, Kat.

KAT KINSMAN, MANAGING EDITOR, CNN EATOCRACY: Thanks for having me. GUPTA: I read your posting and I think the same thing about those types of foods that conjure up not only good taste but also good memories. First of all, you know, I got to say as a doctor, there was a reason that some of grandmother's foods tasted as good as they did, right, in terms of the ingredients they used as compared to now?

KINSMAN: Oh, that would be butter and lard and all that stuff we're afraid of now. It's once a year. Let grandma have her say. It tastes better.

GUPTA: You know, OK. All right. I'm not going to have my doctor hat on all the time but I'm going to ask these questions.

So, you want to preserve or somehow save a lot of these recipes. Now, you say that you didn't get a chance to do it for your own grandmother but you're encouraging other people to do this now. Tell us about this project.

KINSMAN: Well, I'm on a crusade because I screwed up big time. I was too busy off doing, chasing boys, being on the cheerleading squad -- whatever incredibly important high school things I had to do. I didn't get into the kitchen with my grandmother and learn how to make these recipes at her hands. She didn't write them down. And those are lost to the ages.

There are all these cookbooks and websites that can help you make the perfect cookie. I want my grandma's cookies. I don't want anybody else to have to go through that.

GUPTA: Yes, that little pinch of something extra here and there unless you --

KINSMAN: Exactly. A smidge.

GUPTA: -- unless you memorized it you wouldn't remember.

So, how do you go about preserving now some of these recipes for posterity?

KINSMAN: Well, we are living in such a fantastic age of technology. All you have to do is bring your video camera into the kitchen with your older relative and talk -- have them talk you through the recipe, get stories from them. When is the first time you made them? Could you always get the ingredients for it?

Capture every one of those steps as they're doing it. If they're a little camera shy take pictures of their hands. It is just really important to capture that memory and that feeling of being with them.

GUPTA: It's a great holiday thing to do, maybe a holiday tradition starting now. I appreciate you doing this. Thanks for joining us again. Happy holidays to you.

KINSMAN: Thanks so much. I hope you have delicious holidays.

GUPTA: I will. Thanks. You too. Up next we got a special holiday treat for you. I recently sat down for my very first CNN red chair interview. I shared some stories that I've never shared before up until now.


GUPTA: I used to joke with my wife that when we got married, you know, I don't think I had cried since I was 6 years old. And now, I get all misty eyed, right now, I think you get a little -- when you think about the things and --




GUPTA: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I'm a neurosurgeon. I operate on the brain and spinal cord. I'm also a reporter and chief medical correspondent for CNN.

I try not to be one of those guys who says, look, if you can only see what I have seen but if you have time to think, you sit back and think about the fact that we all live in the same world, whether or not you live in a developing world, it is the same world and by good luck or fortune, you were born into a situation where you have things other people don't have. But that's it. It was good luck or fortune.

It's gotten to the point where I feel guilty going because I know that I have to leave almost assuredly, we do get to return to a place that has running water, warm bed, guaranteed food, and most of the people in the places where we go, they don't have that.

My guess is that anybody who's done some of the reporting that we've done that a lot of folks here at CNN have done, probably has some component of post traumatic stress. You know, we're so lucky, we're so privileged, and you see people who don't have that.

I -- I don't know what to say. You know, I mean, you do your best and you try and make sure people at least know what's happening around the world so they, you know, they may care a little more about it. All the arguments going on on television, the media coverage of these things that are so inane and so stupid, frankly -- and we can feed the hungry children of the world. This we can do. I mean, you know, there are a lot of problems we're not going to solve but there are some that we can.

So I think about it a lot.

I got interested in science when my grandfather got sick, as my mom's father. And a couple doctors that cared for him were neurosurgeons. My parents were engineers. They had degrees in engineering and economics and they were interested in business.

I just wasn't interested in any of those things. There was nobody in my family who was a scientist, nobody in my family who was a doctor. We never had a doctor in my family. So, I finally found something that I thought spell out the rest of my life.

And from then on, I was hooked. I was hooked on medicine right around the time I was 12 or 13 years old.

I got accepted to med school young. It was interesting. There was a program called Innoplex (ph) which accepted people in the medical school out of high school. So, I applied like a lot of other kids applied. And I got in.

And so, I was 16 years old when I started. I turned 17 that year, more reason for teasing when you're on a college campus at 16.

You never forget your first solo operation, just a sweet lady. She came to see me in my office. And I told her -- she had a brain tumor. It was a benign brain tumor as far as I could tell.

And literally as I'm walking out the door, I'm about to shut it, she says, "Oh, by the way, doctor, how many of these have you done before?" And I literally turned around and I looked at her and I said, "Ma'am, you wouldn't believe how many of these I've done before," shut the door, walked out. And it went well. So, you know, that's how it starts sometimes.


GUPTA: A tough interview to do sometimes, but important to talk about these things. And I hope you get to spend the family -- the holidays with your family and spend a little bit of time thinking about people all over the world as well.

That's going to wrap things up for us this morning. Stay connected with me on my Lifestream at Also, join the ongoing conversation on Twitter @SanjayGuptaCNN. Hope to see you back here next weekend.

Time now to get you a check of your top stories in "THE CNN NEWSROOM."