How Jimmy Cured Cancer

Posted June 24, 2024
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When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer of the liver, some time ago, we did not tell her.

In those days, this was considered the right and proper thing to do. In those days before Facebook and Instagram, cancer was considered a secret disease, largely because, for the most part, it was a death sentence, and ‘why upset the person’?

In the late 1940’s, no cancer was less dealt with than childhood leukemia. That was because there was, in those days, a belief that there was nothing you could do about it. Children suffering from leukemia were routinely sequestered in some far off ward in a hospital, left to die. From a research perspective, it was also largely ignored.

Cancer, it was felt, could sometimes be successfully treated with surgical excision. But how could you operate and excise cancerous cells from the blood? You couldn’t, so it was a medical dead end.

One young doctor/researcher felt differently, and he made it his life’s mission to find a way to treat, and perhaps to cure childhood cancer. His name was Dr. Sidney Farber, and in his Boston hospital, he was considered as something between an eccentric curiosity and medical pariah. As such, his ‘research lab’ was reduced to a storage closet in the basement.

But Farber was driven. (I am currently reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s outstanding The Emperor of All Maladies, and it is from him that I learned this story.)

There was no funding for childhood leukemia. There was, in fact, very little funding for cancer research in general. Farber believed that cancer could be cured, not by surgery, but rather by the correct application of chemicals. Chemotherapy did not exist then. The concept did not even exist. This would be its beginnings.

But to carry out his research, Farber was going to need funding. Traditional government and medical sources were not interested. But Farber had, what was then considered to be, an entirely new and novel idea.

He would ‘personalize’ the disease. He would make it both interesting and accessible to people by creating a character who would become known as a ‘poster child’ for the illness. This concept had never been tried before — the idea of personalizing a concept, in this case, finding a cure for childhood leukemia.

Farber hit on a young patient, Einar Gustafson, who was named ‘Jimmy’ to maintain his privacy. He connected with Ralph Edwards, who ran one of the most popular shows on radio, (this was before TV), Truth or Consequences, broadcast from LA.

On May 22nd, 1948, Edwards broadcast to his national audience that they were going to meet “live on the radio, all the way from Boston”, young Jimmy, who was in a hospital room there, being treated for leukemia.

This was already a very radical idea. The audience, however, was riveted. They had set up a live inter-connect between Edwards’ studio in LA and Jimmy’s hospital room in Boston and soon Edwards was chatting to young Jimmy.

“What’s your favorite baseball team,” Edwards asked him.

“The Boston Braves,” Jimmy responded.

Suddenly, there was a knock on Jimmy’s hospital room door, and someone entered.

“Who’s that?” Edwards asked.

Starting pitcher Warren Spahn walked into the room. He was soon followed by the rest of the Boston Braves team. All of this on live radio, and as you can imagine, to Jimmy’s utter amazement and delight.

After 8 minutes, Edwards said goodbye to Jimmy and then spoke to his national audience. He explained how Jimmy was in the fight of his life and perhaps you, the listeners, could send in a quarter or a dollar to help find a cure for childhood leukemia.

On the basis of that broadcast, money began to pour in. Tied to a personality and a character, research for childhood leukemia suddenly became the focus of nation passion. Now, it was no longer an abstract and frightening disease, but it was now comprehensible, and had both a person and a story attached to it.

Money and celebrities followed, and perhaps most interesting, The Jimmy Fund still exists to this day, and it has raised millions and millions for research for childhood leukemia, which is now a far more treatable and often curable illness. And Sidney Farber? He moved from his basement closet to head the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, just across the street from his own hospital.

Now, what is the take-away from all of this?

It is the power of character driven storytelling, and what happens when you marry it to an issue and a cause. Human beings are wired to resonate to a story, as Yuri Noah Harari will tell you in his book, Sapiens. And it is true.

In our own work, we have taken TV news and restructured it to be character driven all the time, and it resonated with audiences to an incredible degree.

But that is but the tip of the iceberg. Climate Change and Global Warming are really important issues, but they don’t get traction with the public, not to the degree that they should. That is because there is no single character or personality, no ‘Jimmy’ for climate change.

Marry an issue to a character, however, and the world will follow you.

MAGA has a character, for better or for worse, and that explains a lot of the appeal. Find or create a character and an arc of story, and people will respond.

 


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