Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On being a patient scientist

"I have tumors, I HAVE TUMORS!" my colleague exclaimed with sheer enthusiasm. Intellectually, I knew that this meant her experiment worked, and she'd be able to gain critical insights into the mechanisms that drive melanoma. But man did it take my breath away. 
I was coming up for a scan, and as any cancer patient will attest, it's a time of extreme anxiety. I have had years to cultivate my own relationship with scanxiety, and it usually consists of an ostrich-like shoving of my head in the sand until the day I get bombarded with ionizing radiation. But that changed dramatically when I ventured into a career focused on cancer research. 
Everyday I look at tumors, I generate my very own genetically modified versions of melanomas that grow on zebrafish. And I too search my tanks with excited anticipation that I'll have tumors too. I need them to grow in order to understand the relationship of the immune system with melanoma onset and progression. To perform these experiments, to participate in journal clubs, and to engage scientists on all aspects of cancer research, I thought I would need to compartmentalize the emotional aspects of cancer with these intellectual endeavors. But that's not the case. At all. 
At any given time, I am setting up a PCR and contemplating that 10 year old child who has angiosarcoma at the base of his skull. How can I help him? His parents? As I dispense enzymes into tiny tubes that hold melanoma DNA, I wonder if that pain in my arm is being caused by a tumor, or from the fact that I went big and decided to genotype so many fish that my science muscles are literally telling me that I need a membership to the closest gym, STAT! 
There are no walls between the patient and scientist in me, I never tried to build them. This means that I don't necessarily see things from either side of the fence, but rather from a vantage point on top of the fence itself. There are so many ways that patients and scientist can work together, to enrich each other, to move toward the common goal of curing cancer. And they are, we are.  
I get a thrill every time I meet a mission driven researcher or oncologist (or in some cases both!). There's an instant recognition and bond that's formed. They are out there folks and they will lead us, walk with us and follow us until we no longer have to fear the words, "I have tumors".

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