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A Legacy of Cancer

By Jason E. Sandler

Seven and a half years ago, at the age of fourteen, I had no idea that a disease called cancer would change my life forever. My parents and I could not have seen it coming. My dad was fifty-three years old, in good health, and living a normal life when he began experiencing stomach pain in August 2004. Within a couple of days his pain went from mild to unbearable.

My mom and I rushed him to an emergency room. I will never forget the image of him in the hospital bed, wearing a patient gown, as he choked on a plastic nasogastric tube that was sucking out his stomach contents through his nose. The doctors decided to perform surgery, hoping to locate and remove whatever was causing his dangerous gastric blockage. They suspected that the problem was a hernia. They were wrong. When they cut him open, what they found instead was a tumor in his pancreas.

The news just kept getting worse after that. The tumor was too close to a crucial blood vessel to be removed. A biopsy confirmed that the tumor was malignant. There was no “cure.” The estimated survival time of patients with this stage of pancreatic cancer was roughly one year. After hearing the chief surgeon’s remarks, my mom and I left the hospital, stood outside on the sidewalk, and cried.

The diagnosis that turned my fourteen-year-old world upside-down was only the beginning of my dad’s experiences as a cancer survivor. My dad underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to slow the tumor’s growth. The treatments drained him of his strength and often left him feeling ill and miserable. After a year of treatment, however, he was still alive, and the tumor was showing no further signs of growth.

My parents and I opted for a risky move: pursuing a second major operation in November 2005 to remove the tumor. This time, miraculously, it worked. After a grueling, fourteen-hour-long surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the main tumor—along with most of his pancreas—was gone. Two more years passed by without any major complications. Life had seemingly returned to normal for all of us.

It wasn’t until the end of 2007 that the latest scans showed new metastases invading my dad’s abdomen. Our situation collapsed like a house of cards. In January 2008, hospice workers began coming to the house. As January wore on, my dad lost all of his remaining strength until he could no longer walk, stand, or care for himself. By February 5, his body had entered terminal stages. At 4:30 AM on the morning of February 6, while my mom and I held his hands, my dad exhaled for the last time.

Unlike my dad, neither my mom nor I have yet heard the words, “You have cancer.” But we too have been through it. We helped my dad through the nausea and suffering of his treatments. We escorted him to surgeries, visited him constantly in the hospital, and made sure that the medical team took proper care of him. We celebrated his successes, and we did our best to maintain an atmosphere of “life as usual.” And ultimately, we were the people who stayed at his side to the very end. Partly out of our familial love for my dad, and partly because we had no other choice, my mom and I did not just witness cancer—we had to live it.

Without a doubt, cancer continues to mold my personality, to alter my view of the world, and to motivate me to pursue a career as a scientist and as a doctor. It is because of my family’s trials with cancer that I have become involved with efforts like the Relay For Life at Harvard University. Our Relay For Life is an annual overnight walk-a-thon through which Harvard students come together in solidarity against cancer while raising tens of thousands of dollars to help the American Cancer Society support vital research, patient care, and advocacy efforts. In the wake of my own personal experiences with the disease, I have resolved to fight cancer by turning passion into action.

At Harvard, there might not be very many of us who have been diagnosed with cancer, but without a doubt, many of us are cancer “survivors” in some way or another. If cancer has played a major role in shaping who you are or what you do, I urge you to stand up and take action. Whether it is through getting involved in our Relay For Life effort at, volunteering at the local Hope Lodge, or participating in other Harvard Cancer Society activities, I hope that you will join our university’s ongoing fight against a disease that has taken too much from too many of us.

Jason E. Sandler ’12 is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator who lives in Leverett House. He is one of this year’s Relay For Life co-directors.

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