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Wednesday, November 13 12:01 AM EST

Cancer Reasearcher Turns Off News Whenever Cancer Talked About

By Peter Detwick

Washington, D.C. -- The director of the nation's leading cancer research institute today conceded he usually turns off news reports about the disease because "just hearing the C-word" makes him think he has it.

According to Robert Holmgren, director of the U.S. Cancer Research Center, overcoming ignorance and helping people recognize symptoms is perhaps the greatest weapon in the fight against cancer. Except in his case.

"I don't want to get it, so I have to switch off the radio if the subject of... if the subject even comes up," Holmgren said. The director also confided that he never watches "Medical Minute" reports on local television news, avoids the "Health" section of the newspaper altogether, and would really, really like to talk about something else now.

Not surprisingly, staff members at the Center, which oversees more than $500 million in annual research grants, said working for a Carcinophobic director is exceedingly difficult.

"Yesterday I was giving a report about testicular cancer, and as soon as I got to the part about symptoms, Bob started clearing his throat and humming," said USCRC epidemiologist Franz Bakker. "He does that all the time, like we don't notice."

If Holmgren does listen, Bakker added, "He always ends the meeting asking questions like, 'But that's really rare, right?' and we spend that last half hour convincing him he's not going to die."

Meanwhile, the Center's communications director, Patty Sparma, said she is often forced to leave out the word "cancer" when introducing her boss.

"Last week, Bob made a speech to the National Institutes of Health, and I had to introduce him as the, 'Director of the United States Stuff That Happens to Other People Research Center,'" she recalled. "Then during the Q&A session afterward, every time someone asked about a particular cancer, he kept changing the subject to sports."

While Holmgren admits his relations with colleagues can be awkward, he noted that not every form of the disease bothers him.

"For instance, I don't mind hearing about breast cancer because, c'mon, I'm not going to get that," he said.

When a reporter attempted to tell Holmgren that 1 of every 100 cases of breast cancer actually occurs in males, the director stuck his fingers in his ears and made "Loo-da-loo-da-loo" sounds until the interviewer stopped.

This predilection for personal nescience is a particular concern to Holmgren's wife, Alicia. "Bob isn't young, he's 49 years old," she said. "At his age, he should really consider getting a colonoscopy because..."

"Whoa!" Holmgren interrupted. "Did anybody see that Packers game on Sunday?"

Holmgren was equally uneasy when asked if he had ever had cancer himself.

"There's no way I can answer that question, is there?" he said. "I mean, if I say yes, that wouldn't be true, but if I say no, then tomorrow I'll wake up and have it."

"Thanks a lot, pal," he added.

In closing, Holmgren encouraged all Americans over age 40, except himself, to get a physical.

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