Brooklyn Heights

New book describes vital role of early detection and preventive medicine

Noted developer Bruce Ratner, now an author, describes his quest to catch cancer early and beat it

June 20, 2024 Wayne Daren Schneiderman
Errol Louis and Bruce Ratner. Brooklyn Eagle photos by John McCarten
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BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Cancer: just hearing the word conjures up images of heartache, pain and even helplessness. It’s the number two killer in the U.S. behind heart disease. Despite the tens of billions of dollars spent on cancer research and treatment, most resources in the fight against the dreaded disease are devoted to late-stage treatments.

But there’s hope in a new book, Early Detection: Catching Cancer When It’s Curable, written by New York real estate developer and philanthropist Bruce Ratner with science writer Adam Bonislawski. The writers hope to shine a light on the importance of early screening. 

A banner hanging in the room.
A banner hanging in the room.

Pap smears, colonoscopies, mammograms and the like — all standard practice health care that detects malignancies before symptoms develop — could significantly reduce cancer deaths, according to Ratner.  

In a one-on-one interview with Ratner Monday evening, courtesy of Spectrum News NY1’s Errol Louis, Ratner spoke candidly and passionately about his new text. 

The conversation took place before a group of approximately 150 at the Center for Brooklyn History’s Great Hall located at 128 Pierrepont Street. 

Bruce Ratner signs a copy of his book for a guest.
Bruce Ratner signs a copy of his book for a guest.

Ratner was not merely reciting statistics. In his vocal inflection, cadence and body language, there was no mistaking his passion and personal connection to the subject matter.  

Ratner’s brother Michael, an acclaimed human rights attorney, died from metastatic brain cancer in 2016. It was through this tragedy that Ratner realized that early detection was the key to reducing cancer mortality.

“Eight years ago is really where this quest started, and it was for Michael,” Ratner told the Brooklyn Eagle. “We are so accustomed to treating a disease after it’s symptomatic, but we have to catch cancer early.”

Susan Ratner, Jim Ratner and Rachel Ratner.
Susan Ratner, Jim Ratner and Rachel Ratner.

“When you have advanced cancer, the likelihood of surviving it is usually less than 10%,” said Ratner. “But if you catch cancer early, you have a 90% chance of surviving it. Screening is just so critical, and more people need to know about it.” 

During the interview, Ratner pointed out that in 2023, early detection was only nine percent of the National Cancer Institute’s $7.3 billion budget, while annual sales of the country’s leading immunotherapy drug were $25 billion and only a mere $600 million were spent on early detection.

Steve Merkel and Linda Johnson.
Steve Merkel and Linda Johnson.

Ratner explained that mass media is the key to promoting screening to those who might not be privy to it or are unwilling, citing the CDC’s Screen for Life initiative launched in 1999 for early detection of colon cancer.

“Screen for Life, over 15 or 20 years, got TV, radio and newspapers to give them free advertising worth about $300 million,” Ratner said. “They used celebrities like Katie Couric to advertise for colonoscopies — and it increased the colonoscopy rate from something like 40% to 70%. That’s what mass advertising does.”

Ratner continued, “The federal government needs to lend a hand, and pharmaceutical companies have to contribute to paying for more ads about screening as well.”    

Gift bags for the guests.
Gift bags for the guests.

Ratner also noted that typically people of color, along with poor and rural patients, die from cancer the most. 

“Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer as frequently as white women, black women have a 40% higher mortality rate,” Ratner said. “If you are an underserved person, you are probably not going to get the kind of care that you’d get at Sloan Kettering, for example. If you eliminated the disparities, you would probably reduce the amount of cancer mortality by 20%.” 

Hardy Adasko speaks with Lauren Arana.
Hardy Adasko speaks with Lauren Arana.

Ratner also highlighted the importance of patient navigators. Patient navigators help guide a patient through the healthcare system, including going through the screening, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up of a medical condition such as cancer. 

“They are probably the single most important thing for closing issues with disparities,” Ratner said. “I’d like to try and increase the number of patient navigators. That’s an issue that must be pushed.” 

Early Detection by Bruce Ratner.
Early Detection by Bruce Ratner.

Concerning preventative medicine, Ratner spoke of a new cancer-detecting blood test, which is in the process of gaining approval from the FDA.

“What’s been developed is a blood test called Gallery from the company GRAIL, which can detect up to 50 different cancers. The U.K. ordered 140,000 of these tests to clinically try them. However, it still does need to be improved upon, as the test only picks up about 17% of stage one cancers, about 40% of stage two cancers and about 70% of stage three cancers, but at least in the case of stage ones, it’s better than what we have now,” Ratner said.  

MaryAnne Gilmartin speaks.
MaryAnne Gilmartin speaks.

Bruce Ratner is known for his economic revival of downtown Brooklyn, including building the Barclays Center arena and bringing the Nets NBA basketball franchise to Brooklyn. He currently serves on the boards of Weill Cornell Medicine, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He also founded the Michael D. Ratner Center for Early Detection of Cancer in memory of his brother Michael.


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