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Combating head and neck cancer

Competitive fencer and scientist Dr. Jonathan Cheng is making strides in head and neck cancer research

May 1, 2019

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Oncologist, cancer researcher, father of four, and competitive fencer.

Dr. Jonathan Cheng, vice president, Oncology Clinical Development, MSD Research Laboratories, has long been intrigued by challenging and complex problems, which is evident in the interests he pursues. For instance, fencing is sometimes described as “mental chess,” and some might laughingly say the same of raising four children who are very close in age. In his professional life, Dr. Cheng says he was drawn to the field of cancer research because complex problem-solving in this setting could make a tremendous impact.

Whether he’s seeing patients, helping his kids, or competing in a fencing tournament, Dr. Cheng pursues his passions with devotion – giving his time, energy and focus to each. A significant part of this focus has been caring for people with head and neck cancer, while working in parallel to advance cancer research in this field.

Man in fencing uniform and foil

This is Dr. Cheng’s personal perspective on the challenges of this disease and why he’s optimistic about the future of cancer research.

Head and neck cancer presents unique and sometimes very difficult challenges.

I’ve been an oncologist for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen, up close, how difficult it can be to live with head and neck cancer. While most cancers can be overwhelming and frightening, people with head and neck cancer face distinct challenges from the disease, with their tumors often noticeably visible.

This is a disease that can be physically disfiguring – changing the face that patients present to the world. It can affect social interactions, sometimes making it difficult to swallow and eat, which can increase the effort required to participate in simple pleasures like enjoying a family meal. The disease can also change the ability to speak, impacting how people with head and neck cancer communicate with those around them. I’ve seen patients struggle with these symptoms, while worrying about feeling isolated and stigmatized.

People with head and neck cancer do not need to face the disease alone – there’s a wide network of support to help them.

Many of my patients have had difficulty coping with the challenges of this disease. What I’ve learned is that it’s important for patients and their families to create a network of support – people they can rely on to help give them the strength to keep moving forward.

As healthcare providers, we are part of this network, walking alongside our patients in their journey. I try to help my patients face an often uncertain future by shedding light on their choices and providing information, so that they can choose the path that’s right for them. I also remind my patients that there’s a big team behind them – including some of the greatest scientific minds working through research to improve patient care.

We are making progress in head and neck cancer research.

I’ve been involved in head and neck cancer research for decades to try to bring forward meaningful advances for people diagnosed with this potentially devastating disease. Such advances have been hard to come by, and my patients and I sometimes struggle with the options available. The good news is that there have been some improvements in survival rates over the years, and we are hopeful for the future.

We have begun to leverage our understanding of biology to move head and neck cancer research forward. At MSD, we are focused on immuno-oncology, studying the role of the immune system in detecting and fighting cancer. We are evaluating the potential of this approach, which aims to harness and restore the body’s ability to detect and fight cancer cells, in head and neck and other cancers. We are committed to better understanding this challenging disease to help patients like the ones I see in my practice.

As a researcher and medical oncologist caring for patients, I am confident that change is coming to the head and neck cancer landscape – and I’m honored to play a role in advancing this important work.