The Robert Wilson family is gathered on the front lawn of their Omaha home, looking as if party guests are about to arrive. A 27-foot Winnebago pulls up and a man bounds out, saying, “Hi there, I’m sure glad to see you.” It is an incongruous scene for the visit of a doctor who has come to talk to the Wilsons about cancer and the chance that they may be among families particularly susceptible to it.
Dr. Henry Lynch, 49, calls himself a “clinical genetic researcher” and he devotes most of his time to studying hereditary factors in cancer. The Wilson home is not far from Lynch’s office at Creighton University in Omaha, where he is chairman of the department of preventive medicine. But Lynch and his Winnebago have traveled as far as Troy, Ohio to study cancer-prone families. (He once conducted his examinations in patients’ homes but switched to the van in 1970 when a portable centrifuge blew up in a Missouri kitchen, spattering the family with their own blood samples.)
Lynch spent a National Cancer Institute grant of $14,000 outfitting the van to handle complete physicals. He spends about a month a year on the road with his staff, which usually includes his wife, Jane, a registered nurse, and a rotating crew of technicians and other researchers. “On long trips we read and play cards on the floor,” Mrs. Lynch says. “It’s sometimes like a big party.”
Lynch’s crew can screen up to 60 people a day, depending on whether the tests involve skin and blood samples as well as medical histories. At present the doctor and his associates are studying 96 breast-cancer-prone families, 25 to 30 lung cancer, eight melanoma and 15 families with a variety of types of the disease.
Robert Wilson of Omaha, selected from a study of hospital records, is a typical case. Dr. Lynch discovered that Wilson’s mother died of cervical cancer and two of his uncles of lung cancer. Lynch asked if Wilson smoked or drank heavily (he doesn’t) or if he has had industrial exposure to asbestos and other cancer-causing agents (no again). Wilson underwent a general physical with blood tests designed to reveal any “markers” associated with cancer susceptibility. Lynch later told him that because of the nature of the tumors in his family and his personal habits, his cancer risk was “not excessive.”
Lynch has found dramatic evidence of hereditary influences in cancer. Among people with one first-degree relative (a parent, a sibling or a child) who had cancer, 8.9 percent developed the disease; the figure rises to 16.2 percent when two first-degree relatives are affected and 27.4 percent with three or more.
Part of the value of the test data, Lynch says, comes in alerting doctors and patients to potential cancer hazards. “Surprisingly,” he says, “in families prone to cancer, less attention is often paid to symptoms. A wishing-lumps-would-go-away syndrome develops.”
Even if the tests unduly alarm high-risk patients, Lynch insists, they are worthwhile as a diagnostic tool. “Cancer is a killer,” he points out, “with no respect for whether you’re frightened or not.”