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‘Still more to do’: Lynch earns prestigious fellowship in American College of Physicians

Henry T. Lynch, MD., a professor at the Creighton University School of Medicine, was honored with two awards from the American College of Physicians.Though just a few months removed from a broken hip and a major surgery, Henry T. Lynch, M.D., still beamed brightly, still greeted colleagues, still enlivened students with his thoughts about where his life’s work will take him next.

The Creighton University School of Medicine professor and researcher who was the first to make a genetic link between certain forms of cancer has been residing in an assisted-living facility in Papillion, where, on Feb. 22, he was honored with two awards from the American College of Physicians.

“I can’t wait to get back to it,” said Lynch, 88, a Creighton University professor of medicine and a researcher who was the first to make a genetic link between certain forms of cancer. “I’ve been doing what I can from here, but to get back in the office and back into the routine. I really hope I can do that again. And soon.”

Lynch was honored by the ACP with a fellowship, a recognition for contributions “over and above the practice of medicine,” and also with the Nebraska Chapter of the ACP’s Walter J. O’Donohue, M.D., Award, an annual recognition honoring physicians who embody the example set by O’Donohue, himself a longtime Creighton professor of medicine.

Over six decades, Lynch, who first proposed a genetic factor involved in people who develop breast, ovarian, colon and other types of cancer, has studied the histories of more than 3,300 families and 220,000 individuals, looking for markers that would indicate the potential for cancer. The research has encouraged many at risk for developing cancer to get early screenings and, in the words of many Lynch colleagues, has potentially saved thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of lives.

Several dozen of Lynch’s collaborators, students, staff and family turned out for the award ceremony and many also provided testimonials on a man whose pluck and brilliance are still evident today.

“The passion, the dedication, the tireless work to save lives, that’s who he is and why he gets these awards,” said Carrie Snyder, a cancer genetics nurse specialist at the Creighton University Hereditary Cancer Center, which Lynch founded and has led since 1984. “But more than that, it’s what drives him. He has never lost sight of what the end purpose is: to help families with hereditary cancer.”

After he first proposed the idea of hereditary cancer in the early 1960s, Lynch endured years of ridicule from the medical establishment. It was not until the late 1980s, when a group of physicians from Japan began ascribing to the idea, that Lynch’s ideas were fully recognized.

“This was not an easy climb,” said Robert Townley, M.D., a colleague of Lynch’s in the School of Medicine. “This was crazy, this idea of cancer being genetic. You can’t help but admire his confidence and his perseverance to come to this.”

Hereditary cancer suddenly went mainstream and doctors and researchers became advocates for what was now called Lynch syndrome.

“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say he’s really the father of genetic medicine,” said Joann Porter, M.D., a one-time student of Lynch’s.

All the while, the discovering doctor made his research available far and wide, took late-night phone calls, wrote dozens of daily letters, traveled the world with his late wife, Jane, to spread the message.

“It’s all about the patients for Henry,” said Robert Dunlay, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine and another one-time student of Lynch’s. “He selflessly gives information we couldn’t get from anywhere else, all in the interest of saving lives.”

During the ceremony, Lynch offered a few comments reflecting on his career and offering thanks to his colleagues and the institution which has, he said, believed in him since the beginning.

“I have consistently been provided support by Creighton and I firmly consider Creighton to be one of the most beautiful and understanding institutions,” said Lynch, who began his career at the University in 1967.

“I’ve been involved with many institutions and this one’s a winner.” Two of Lynch’s protégés, fourth-year medical students Jessica Gries and Brody Slostad, who are working on a condition known as a cancer of unknown primaries, said the physician’s humility and openness, along with his tenacity and wisdom, are what have made Lynch a titan of genetic medicine.

“He serves as a role model for all of us,” Gries said. “His compassion for his patients, his ability to educate and mentor — for us a medical students, to have someone so dedicated take such a deep interest in us and our work is truly humbling.”

Following the ceremony, as these friends and colleagues continued to press around him and ask for pictures, Lynch was happy to oblige. Someone asked again if he was ready to return to the work that has driven him for more than half a century and his eyes lit up.

“I know full well many lives have been saved by the feedback I’ve received by so many doctors over the years,” Lynch said. “But there’s still more to do and I hope I can get back to it.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.