(SACRAMENTO)

Brad Pollock knows a lot about cancer. In addition to his appointments as chair of the UC Davis Public Health Sciences Department and associate dean for public health sciences, Pollock is an expert in cancer epidemiology, including the study of what causes cancer, how it spreads and cancer prevention.

UC Davis epidemiologist Brad Pollock meets with his colleague and cancer surgeon Elizabeth Raskin during post-op visit.
UC Davis epidemiologist Brad Pollock meets with his colleague and cancer surgeon Elizabeth Raskin during post-op visit.

Over his career, Pollock has built an international reputation for his research into childhood cancers. As an epidemiologist, he jumped into the world of COVID-19 when the pandemic started.

But, until November 2020, he was never a patient in a hospital.

What was more remarkable is that he found himself a patient in the hospital where he works, being given lifesaving treatment by colleagues.

Pollock was diagnosed with stage II colorectal cancer when COVID-19 was surging, just as the holidays were descending in late November.

“Even though we were at the height of the pandemic, I knew that I shouldn’t delay getting my surveillance colonoscopy,” Pollock said. “Cancer doesn’t take a break for COVID-19, and I didn’t hesitate to get my procedure despite feeling fine and not experiencing any symptoms.”

New chief of Division of Colorectal Surgery is a pioneer in robotic colorectal surgery

As the new chief of the UC Davis Division of Colorectal Surgery, Elizabeth Raskin leads a busy surgical service that focuses on leading-edge techniques, including robotic and laparoscopic surgery.

“We have only scratched the surface with digital and robotic surgical technology,” said Raskin, who is double board-certified in general and colorectal surgery. “Through sound technique and smart, innovative technology, we can achieve improved patient outcomes with shorter recovery times.”

Raskin said she was drawn to UC Davis because of the investment it was making in robotic- and video-assisted surgery.

“Many of the patients we care for live in remote areas and do not have regular access to high-quality medical and surgical care. In fact, delays in diagnosis can result in a more advanced stage of cancer that is more challenging to treat,” Raskin said. “Our fellow Californians in rural counties deserve the same high-quality care that is available in the urban setting. I felt I could make an impact in this setting given these disparities.”

Prior to joining UC Davis, Raskin was an assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology at Loma Linda University in San Bernardino County and a staff surgeon at the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System. As one of the first women in the nation to perform robotic colorectal cancer surgery, Raskin now teaches other surgeons nationally and internationally.

When she’s not working, Raskin enjoys spending time with her family and tending to the mini cactus farm in her yard, which includes over 100 species.

His cancer diagnosis didn’t completely take Pollock by surprise because, as a cancer researcher, he was aware that his history of inflammatory bowel disease put him at higher risk for colon cancer. But like anyone who hears the words “you have cancer,” the 64-year-old was distraught. His biggest fear was leaving Nancy, his wife of 36 years, all alone.

“I took comfort in knowing that I was in the right place,” said Pollock. “As a cancer researcher, I knew getting my cancer treated at an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center would give me the best possible outcome and, at that point, I turned my care over to my peers.”

Pollock didn’t know his surgeon, Elizabeth Raskin, because she had only recently joined the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, but he knew of her reputation as a leader and pioneer in robotic-assisted colorectal cancer surgery. 

“I felt incredibly fortunate to look no further than my workplace to get the best possible treatment,” Pollock said.

He has since bonded with his surgeon, who is not only a colleague but now a friend.

“Brad had a four-centimeter tumor that had penetrated the lining of his colon,” Raskin said. “Robotic technology enabled him to undergo minimally invasive surgery for his colon cancer and, ultimately, recover very quickly.”

Raskin said the only challenge was keeping Pollock from returning to work too quickly.

“Robotic surgery is still major surgery, and even though patients will feel less pain after colon cancer surgery, they still need to take the appropriate time to heal,” Raskin said.

Pollock was caught asking for his laptop while doing a BBC radio interview the day after Raskin performed his robotic surgery. Six weeks later, he was back on his bicycle, riding a dozen miles at a time, as if nothing had happened.

“My advice is to not take life for granted. Get your screenings on time, and if cancer is found, make sure you are in the best hands,” Pollock said. “For me, that was an easy choice. I only had to turn to my colleagues at UC Davis Health.”