Cancer: Improving the Odds

Polly Newcomb ’79, is a powerhouse.

by Nikki McCoy

As Head of the Cancer Prevention Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, she has published more than 400 research reports supported by $54 million in grants, helped coordinate a women’s health initiative that studied 180,000 women, and her work has affected millions. She also serves as president of the American Society for Preventive Oncology and is a recent Fulbright Scholar—further influencing cancer research and education across the country.

Photo of Polly Newcomb.

For more than 25 years, Polly Newcomb has given people the tools they need to live longer, healthier lives. Photo by Shauna Bittle ‘98.

With a resume that suggests a busy, inaccessible schedule, Newcomb was more than willing to discuss her experiences with The Evergreen Magazine, stating she felt it was important to share her work with others.

For Newcomb, science and service are one and the same.

Beginning with her days at Evergreen, where she originally studied Chinese civilization, Newcomb has embraced the spirit of giving. She would spend her days studying, and her nights volunteering with the health department’s family planning division. Newcomb knew she needed to be a part of something bigger. “I felt like what I was doing was not helping improve the lives others, and if I didn’t leave the world a better place, then I really didn’t have a place,” recalled Newcomb. “So, I decided on science.”

When she happened upon the book Epidemiology: Principles and Methods, by Brian MacMahon, Newcomb found her calling. (She later worked with MacMahon at Harvard, where he chaired the Department of Epidemiology.)

At the time, Evergreen had no prerequisites for science studies, so Newcomb dove into an intensive science education.

“Evergreen didn’t put any barriers to what I studied,” she said. “So I took all my required classes for what I wanted to do—nobody said, ‘You can’t do this.’”

After graduation, Newcomb hit a block: How would she use epidemiology and health science to help people? It was while reflecting on her days with family planning that she realized the path to her full potential—public health.

So with a clear sense of purpose, Newcomb continued her studies. Accepted into the best schools in the country, she chose the University of Washington to finish her master’s in public health, and went on to earn her Ph.D. in epidemiology.

She then moved to Wisconsin to complete a post-doc in cancer biology, accept a professorship at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, and raise a family. She thrived on the ideals of information and policy as avenues to educate the public and reform cancer prevention practices.

A photo of blueberries.

When summing up decades of cancer prevention research, she tries to keep her message simple: “Don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, use sunscreen, and talk to your doctor about cancer screening and getting vaccinated for certain infection-related cancers.”

Prevention isn’t always possible. In the U.S., nearly 40 percent of people will be diagnosed with cancer. One recent study by Newcomb indicates that while heavy alcohol consumption is linked to certain cancers, drinking after breast cancer diagnosis—even more than 10 drinks per week—can actually increase longevity, dropping the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 40 to 60 percent. And pre-diagnosis drinking at the moderate level—three to six drinks per week—reduced the chance of death from breast cancer by 15 percent.

Newcomb embraces communication opportunities that can deliver public health messages in an accessible and practical manner. Playboy magazine recently cited her on the carcinogenic implications of charred barbecue meat. She was surprised when approached by the magazine, but acknowledged that the audience for prevention comes in all forms.

So how is the cancer prevention frontier changing? Newcomb said that, on a micro-level, prevention is advancing through technology because researchers can be a lot more directed about how they understand people’s exposures. It used to be that patients were asked about family history, diet, and exercise habits, which are still useful, Newcomb explained. But now, she said, we have the ability to more deeply study a person’s genetic profile and metabolic pathways to find out not only where they’ve been, but also where they might be going.

“This level of information, to study biomarkers we weren’t able to see before, is profound and may truly lead to precision prevention,” she said.

Newcomb noted another example of deeper investigation. “We don’t just ask people, ‘Have you ever lived next to an industrial site?’ We can measure heavy metal exposure through 32 different elements in a person’s urine.”

She also credits online components of technology, noting linkage in electronic health records and the public’s access to information.

Lately, her work has continued as mentorship through her faculty appointments at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington.

Next on Newcomb’s mentorship horizon is a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose tagline—“We believe all people deserve the chance to lead healthy, productive lives”—is close to Newcomb’s heart.

Graph of a study linking alcohol and longevity.

Newcomb, Polly et al.

“Alcohol Consumption Before and After Breast Cancer Diagnosis.” Journal of Clinical Oncology (2013)

Pre-diagnosis: 3–6 drinks per week reduced the risk of death from breast cancer by 15%.

Post-diagnosis: Up to 10 drinks per week reduced the risk of death by cardiovascular disease by 40–60%.

Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to increased chance of developing cancer. This chart represents one finding in the study. Other variables apply. Please talk with your doctor.

With these ideals tucked in her back pocket, she continues to study preventive measures by mentoring students who are investigating things like biomarkers or many common lifestyle and environmental exposures.

She laughed when remembering one student, whose five years of research required a computer replacement because he “worked so darn hard.”

This laughter changed to more reflection as she recognized her students’ intensive work and accomplishments, and in turn, she considered her own journey.

“When you have a long enough career, you realize there are a lot of things you will never be able to do,” she said, “but if you’re going to continue to make a difference, then mentoring junior investigators is a tangible way to continue the mission. I’m extremely fortunate to work with so many bright, hard-working students, fellows, and colleagues.”