For cancer patient/scientist, clinical trial is the adventure of his life

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Tom Marsilje signed paperwork Wednesday to enroll in a Phase 1 clinical trial of a new cancer treatment.

We’ve all signed contracts — employment agreements, mortgages, marriage certificates.  All of these are pivotal moments, each signifying a major turning point in life, each marking a “before and after.”

Today I signed the ultimate contract — a contract to try to save my life.

 I wrote in October about the unexpected chance of an immunotherapy clinical trial opportunity appearing when I least expected it.  One, although completely unproven, with potentially curative consequences.  I immediately jumped at the chance. 

I spent the fall in a state of excitement, once again writing in November about the incredible hope that an immunotherapy clinical trial brings to a “currently incurable” Stage IV cancer patient like me.

Of course, even with that uplift, real life continues.  Cancer continues.  I had a scare, with serious pain and a tough course of radiation to bring the disease back under control, which delayed the trial.  I needed to eat my radiation veggies before I could enjoy my immunotherapy dessert.

My trial is a Phase 1 trial, which means that work on this therapeutic approach is just beginning. In a Phase 1 trial, a small number of people get the treatment so that researchers can evaluate its safety and see what the side effects are.  I believe I will be the sixth person in the entire world to get this combination of experimental drugs.  Most trials fail — I am going into this trial with realistic eyes wide open.

But also with eyes wide open, I saw my 9-year-old daughter’s face yesterday as I told her I was driving to Los Angeles to officially start the pretrial process, preparing for a Feb. 27 dosing.  As young as she is, she knows that, for me, chemo is unending and non-curative.  She can barely remember her dad not having chemotherapy.  She wants my disease to end – I think even more than I do.  For her, for my entire family, for me, it is time for some home-run swings. Chemo options are  dwindling, and scientific progress is accelerating. Now is the time.

It may take more than one swing. But I am ready to start swinging, as often and as hard as it takes. Biding my time with chemo (I call it “treading water”) was important.  It allowed years of scientific progress to happen.  It gave me five years of wonderful family memories.

My signature on today’s written contract will be a pivotal moment in my life – one I am ready and excited for.  There will be a before and after.  It is time to bring my fight to the next level.

I plan on bringing the readers of Philly.com and the Philadelphia Inquirer along for a front-row seat of what it is like to enter a highly experimental, unproven, Phase 1 clinical trial.  I plan to be brutally honest.  Show you the hope …  the hardship … the excitement … and potentially the heartbreak.  The curtain will be pulled back from something that most people know nothing about but that every currently incurable cancer patient should know about. I believe it will become less intimidating as you become more familiar with it.

I hope you join me for the biggest research project and adventure of my life.

Tom Marsilje, Ph.D., is a 20-year oncology drug discovery scientist with “currently incurable” stage IV colon cancer. He also writes a personal blog on life at the intersection of being both a cancer patient and researcher “Adventures in Living Terminally Optimistic,” a science column for Fight Colorectal Cancer "The Currently Incurable Scientist," and posts science and advocacy updates to Twitter @CurrentIncurSci. This guest column appears on Diagnosis: Cancer through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for one million patients and caregivers.


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