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As Ratner continues media interviews and establishes Early Detection (Cancer) Initiative, his career misleadingly framed as steady "progressive" path

The rebranding of Bruce Ratner, previously real estate developer and philanthropist, clearly now adds author and health advocate.

Even if Ratner, billed as the co-author of Early Detection: Catching Cancer While It's Curable, did less of the work than his scientifically grounded co-author, it seems to be a worthy cause, and he's putting his (tax-deductible) money where his mouth is, this past week establishing the Ratner Early Detection Initiative at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, or MSK. (More below.)

But it's still mind-boggling to see how complaisant interviewers, surely prepped by a press kit, confirm the reframing of Ratner's career as a steady progressive pursuit. 

I previously wrote about how the one interviewer who went beyond the book, WNYC's Brian Lehrer, elicited Ratner's blasé attitude toward not finishing Atlantic Yards. 

I noted that the Community Benefits Agreement hyped by Ratner's firm aspired to “maximize the benefits of the Project to residents of Brooklyn, as well as minority and women construction, professional and operational workers and business owners and thereby to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects.”

On WCBS

A particularly indulgent interview, which I hadn't mentioned, came on WCBS-TV's The Point, hosted by Marcia Kramer, on April 21. "He served as Consumer Affairs Commissioner under former mayor Ed Koch and then became a real estate developer," Kramer led off. "But his current passion: changing the way the medical profession deals with cancer, may be an outgrowth of his work going after corrupt merchants and repairmen."

"So here's the deal," she asked him. "When you were a Consumer Affairs Commissioner, you had an intense focus on going up to the bad guys, the merchants, the alarm salesmen, all kinds of bad guys. Now you've got the same laser focus on the medical profession. You want to change the way they deal with cancer. Why?"

"I guess I just have always been an advocate," Ratner responded. "I've always been on the progressive side for all my life"--um, he supported Republicans like Rudy Giuliani when it was politically advantageous--"and did a lot of science work, but the real issue is it gets me upset and angry at the fact that we can do something about curing cancer and making people not as sick and saving families if we catch cancer early, and I care a lot about that, just as I cared about people being ripped off."

He went on to mention the cancer death of his brother Michael as a spur and noted that "every one of us has had to deal with cancer."

  

On WebMD

A May 1 interview, on WebMD, covered more ground regarding Ratner's personal connection to cancer, including not just Michael's passing but also others in his family: "my mother died of cancer when I was 28 years old. My sister-in-law died of cancer when she was 42. And my grandmother... died when I was 5."

Why, asked interviewer John Whyte, is Ratner "interested in issues of disparities when it comes to cancer prevention particularly?"

"So I had parents who cared a lot about human rights and civil rights," Ratner responded. "My brother was a very famous human rights lawyer. And all my life, right out of law school, instead of going to a big law firm, I went to work for the city on poverty law. And I cared deeply about everybody. And African-Americans--the best example is African-American women get breast cancer at the same incidence numbers, diagnosed with cancer, the same as white people, but 40% higher mortality." 

That, he said, could be solved with health navigators helping access screenings--a program that MSK would announce a few days later and, perhaps, help some of the people who had invested so much home in the housing and jobs promised by Ratner's Atlantic Yards.

Later in the interview, Ratner said, "I was Commissioner of Consumer Affairs of the city for four years. I worked in consumer--fighting as an advocate for seven. Let's say seven and five, twelve years. And so I think I have some sense of what it is to be an advocate."

(Upon Ratner's appointment as Commissioner of Consumer Affairs in January 1978, the Times said he'd "served for three years in the Consumer Department after graduating from law school," then taught consumer law at NYU law school. He joined a law firm in 1982--sometime between four and five years later.)

New program

A May 6 press release, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Launches Innovative Projects to Improve Health in Queens and Brooklyn:
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) today announced an innovative set of initiatives to support underserved communities in New York City who lack access to cancer screening and early detection. With critical support from longtime MSK Board Member, real estate developer, and former New York City Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, Bruce Ratner, the Ratner Early Detection Initiative (REDI) draws from MSK’s deep experience in cancer science and discovery, community engagement, and compassionate patient care.

REDI will encompass three main project elements: resources to help increase access to lung cancer screening among underserved communities, patient navigation services through a robust co-learning program, and support for the development of dynamic Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools to spur early detection technology. The five-year initiative will include Queens-based MediSys Health Network (comprised of Jamaica Hospital Medical Center and Flushing Hospital Medical Center) as well as various community-based organizations. REDI’s overarching goal is to support communities throughout Queens and Brooklyn, where disparities in screening and access to care are present and problematic.

“We have the technology to identify many cancers early when they are still curable, and we can do more to expand access to these tests, especially in low-income communities that have historically lacked access to health facilities,” said Mr. Ratner. “By increasing awareness of care access and cancer screening opportunities, and by providing the resources to help with initial and follow-up testing, we’re hopeful that we can save lives in these communities.”

“Creating meaningful change requires a vision, deep collaboration, and a champion to lead,” said David G. Pfister MD, Chief of the Head and Neck Oncology Service and Associate Deputy-Physician-in-Chief for Strategic Partnerships at MSK, and Chief of Medical Oncology at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. “Mr. Ratner’s support of these important projects, informed by loss from cancer in his own family and deep appreciation of the enormous unmet need in underserved communities, coupled with the expertise of healthcare professionals across MSK, MediSys Health Network, and various community organizations, will have a lasting impact across New York City.”

Breaking Down Barriers to Lung Cancer Screening

REDI is positioned to improve awareness of and access to lung cancer screening and prioritize personalized support for people undergoing screening and cancer care, particularly within eastern Brooklyn and southern Queens, where inequities persist among certain racial and ethnic populations. Through strategic partnerships and outreach to qualified health centers across the community, MSK is expanding its efforts to engage people who have not been screened for lung cancer yet may be at higher risk due to occupational hazards or smoking history.

Patient navigators – a hallmark of the initiative – will support patients starting with the initial encounter and will address the legal, financial, psychosocial, and technological impediments to increase appointment attendance and adherence to care plans. Some studies have shown correlations between unmet socioeconomic needs and missed healthcare appointments; the value and contribution of patient navigators is widely recognized.

“For many people, especially underserved populations, cancer screenings may seem inaccessible, and coping with a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Finishing all the treatment that’s required can seem like an impossible feat,” said Francesca M. Gany, MD, MS, Chief of MSK’s Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities Service. “The Ratner Early Detection Initiative will invest in building the presence of patient navigators, who will support patients’ needs across the entire care continuum.”

In addition to direct navigation services provided to community members through REDI, the project will also build community and health care system capacity to provide navigation support services through a Lung Cancer Screening and Treatment Navigation co-learning program.

Innovating and Improving Early Detection of Renal Cancer with Artificial Intelligence

This year, more than 81,600 new cases of renal cell cancer – often referred to as kidney cancer or renal cell adenocarcinoma – will be diagnosed in the United States, resulting in nearly 14,400 deaths. While more commonly found in people over the age of 64, this type of cancer also disproportionally affects African Americans and is more often discovered incidentally during imaging when patients are asymptomatic.

AI has the potential to support physicians in diagnosing kidney cancer at its earliest stages, yet a lack of funding to support the development of larger-scale projects to ensure more robust data sharing has been lacking. REDI provides a foundation to support MSK data scientists and experts in radiology to co-develop AI tools that can improve data sharing to make more immediate and cost-effective differences in outcomes.

“Diagnosing cancer at its earliest stage results in improved outcomes and a better quality of life for all patients,” said Lawrence H. Schwartz, MD, Chair of the Department of Radiology at MSK. “We are uniquely positioned to effect real change and are grateful for Mr. Ratner’s dedication and visionary gift.”

Looking ahead, the REDI team will use its learnings from this initial phase to inform additional projects and expand on these current initiatives. MSK Radiologist Elise Desperito, MA, MD, is spearheading one such project where plans to broaden access to mammography services to Harlem residents is underway at the MSK Ralph Lauren Center, with plans to expand in other boroughs. Future expansion of other programming could also include screening initiatives for other cancers such as colon and skin.

Mr. Ratner has personal ties to cancer after experiencing the profound loss of his brother Michael in 2016. He believes deeply in early detection and has co-authored the book “Early Detection: Catching Cancer when it’s Curable” (OR Books, June 11, 2024) with Adam Bonislawski.

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