Dr. Azra Raza has many stories to tell about cancer and its treatment.
Loved ones she’s lost to cancer include her husband; her daughter’s 22-year-old best friend; and her own best friend’s son, age 38. As director of the MDS Center at Columbia University, Raza also sees hundreds of cancers patients each year. And then there are the tissue samples from the thousands of patients whose blood and bone marrow she’s been collecting for research since 1984 – each telling a unique narrative of the contours of a disease.
How to use such stories to inform the public about research is the subject of Science as Story, a new speaker series from the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.
The series features five women who’ve written books about topics ranging from biology to climate change. It begins Thursday with a talk by Raza, author of the 2019 book “The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last.”
The book questions our health-care system’s default focus on what Raza calls the “slash, poison, burn” method of treating cancer, which she says has changed little since 1977, when the native of Pakistan immigrated to the U.S. to study acute myeloid leukemia. Raza argues that chemotherapy for patients with metastatic (i.e., late-stage) cancer is expensive, painful, and seldom effective, and that we’d be better off trying to find new ways to prevent cancer and detect it early.
“What compelled me to write the book is not just my experience and observation and frustration at the failure, but the human stories that I witness on a daily basis,” she said in a phone interview. “It has come to the point that because cancer research has become far removed from the human pain and suffering and the human story, we are not doing justice to it. And I wanted to look at everything now through the prism of human anguish.”
When it comes to communicating scientific ideas to the public, Raza said, stories are better than statistics.
“The listener or the audience is affected differently when they listen to numbers, statistics, scientific experiments,” she said. “If we tell the same thing from the perspective of telling a story, an entirely different part of the brain is stimulated in the audience themselves.
“I want my listeners in the audience to walk the walk with me, and feel what I feel on a daily basis.”
Raza speaks Thursday at the Ace Hotel, in East Liberty. The title of her talk is “The C Word: Writing About Cancer Using Scholarship & Empathy.”
The series is free, though pre-registration is required. Each of the talks takes place at a different venue.
Other speakers include: Amanda Little, author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World” (March 22, Trust Arts Education Center, Downtown); Dawn Raffel, author of “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How A Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies” (March 26, The Beauty Shoppe, Lawrenceville); Dr. Danielle Ofri, author of “When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error” (April 2, Andrew Carnegie Free Library, Carnegie); and Ruth Kassinger, author of “Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us (April 16, Phipps Conservatory, Oakland).
The series also include separate, “up-close-and-personal conversations about the art, craft and business of writing narrative science" with each of the writers.
The Creative Nonfiction Foundation supports writers through publishing and educational projects and programs.
WESA receives funding from Creative Nonfiction.