The day began at ASCO, a major oncology conference, where a clinical trial showing positive results from a cancer drug I helped to invent was presented.Coming from a family filled with cancer, I was elated to have struck a blow against the disease.
Just six hours later everything changed.
I awoke from a colonoscopy to hear these words: "He has colon cancer. We'll schedule an emergency surgery immediately."
In a matter of seconds, at age 40, I transitioned from being a cancer drug discovery scientist to being a cancer survivor.
Ever since that moment, I have been both.
After an initial panic, the oncology scientist in me began to take control. I decided. "OK, this is a scientific problem. I am a scientist and science is always advancing. I will not assume I can't beat this." At that point I began to approach my cancer as the greatest research project of my entire life.
Initially I had performed academic oncology drug discovery – first at SUNY-Buffalo where I received a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry (drug discovery) followed by a post-doctoral position at the Scripps Research Institute. Following a research position at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, I have been a researcher at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) since 2003.
More than two years after my initial cancer diagnosis, I received an additional diagnosis of Stage I melanoma in January 2015.
This had a big impact: it blocked me from almost all colorectal cancer (CRC) clinical trials. I was devastated – all of my research and planning had hinged on access to clinical trials.
My melanoma blocking me from clinical trials had turned into a scientific blessing. We are working hard to cure me, and to use my case to illustrate how to potentially cure others. As a scientist, patient and advocate – this is thrilling beyond belief, the most exciting science project I can imagine.
This is why I always describe myself as "currently incurable". This is a view I discuss frequently in my blog, "Adventures in Living Terminally Optimistic" written from the unique perspective of someone who is both a Stage IV cancer patient and a cancer scientist trying to help cure his own disease.
Will new scientific advances and our project save my life? I firmly believe that most cases of advanced CRC will be cured within my wife's lifetime. I hope and am working hard to make it happen in my lifetime.
Dr. Tom Marsilje 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 over 750,000 patients and caregivers.