When Television Had a Face for Cancer

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By Ken Zurski

On April 21 1960, a Thursday, CBS television aired a taped documentary titled “Biography of a Cancer” that for its day, was as timely as it was informative. That’s because in the 1950’s doctors had just begun experimenting with a combination chemotherapy and radiation as treatment. In the public eye, there were just as many questions about its clinical usefulness as there were answers. So the network’s objective was to present a cancer patient and show “truthfully and graphically” the various stages of the disease.

They found the perfect subject in Dr. Thomas A. Dooley.

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Dr. Tom Dooley

A lieutenant and rising star in the Navy, Dooley scrapped plans to be an orthopedic surgeon, left the military, and devoted his life to serve those in less fortunate areas of the world. He was profiled by some as a globetrotting playboy, both good looking and successful, who became an “idealistic, crusading servant of the poor and depressed.”

Dooley didn’t care how he was perceived. His mission was clear. But due to this mix of admonition and admiration, his story got notice and Dooley wrote three best-selling books about his humanitarian crusade. One was titled: “Deliver Us From Evil.”

Then he got cancer.

When Dooley agreed to be filmed by CBS he was just about to have surgery on the malignant tumor found near his shoulder.

In August of 1959, the cameras rolled.

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Nearly a year later in April, the show aired.

One that day, a newspaper preview titled “Today’s Television Highlights” read like this:

CBS Reports looks at cancer in general and the case of Dr. Tom Dooley in particular on tonight’s “Biography of a Cancer.” Using Dooley as a typical case, we follow his treatment. There are shots of two operations – an exploratory one and a major bit of surgery – which are fairly strong stuff, but important in the complete story. And at the end, there is a conversation between Dooley and cancer researcher Dr. Murray Shear which is an abrasive, no punches-pulled affair. The conclusion, in both Dooley’s case and the broader story in general, is what producer Albert Wasserman terms, “Judiciously Optimistic.” Anyone concerned with cancer should see this, and might be wise for everyone to look in; it dispels a few myths.  

One person who didn’t see the TV special airing that night was Tom Dooley. He was in Southeast Asia treating the sick. In fact, Dooley kept a constant travel schedule even after the diagnosis and surgery.  His will and determination was an inspiration to the staff of MEDICO, the world-wide health organization Dooley founded. Many of his patients called him “Dr. America,” but his team knew him simply as “Dr. Tom.”

“Walt Whitman, I think, said that it’s not important what you do with the years of your life, but how you use each hour, “ Dooley told the television viewers in the CBS special. “That’s how I want to live.”

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Eventually his body weakened, but not his spirit. “I’m not going to quit. I will continue to guide and lead my hospitals until my back, my brain, and my bones collapse,” he said after being admitted for treatment for the last time.

On January 18, 1961, just a month after returning from a mission to Bangkok and one day after his 34th birthday, Tom Dooley died. For all his frantic and tireless efforts, both in front and behind the camera the end was “a quiet, peaceful slipping away,” a friend said about his final hours.

At the time of his death, as Dooley had hoped, the dedication to his work, and not the brief stint on television, was the focus of numerous articles and memorials.

“Tom Dooley didn’t lose the fight,” one newspaper headline read.  Even to the end, “he was fighting for time to carry on his work as long as he could”

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