Name: Tom Marsilje
Age at Diagnosis: 40
June 4, 2012. A day that will be permanently seared into my memory for the rest of my life.
Why? I am a Ph.D. drug discovery scientist who has largely focused on trying to discover new cancer therapies for the past >20 years. On June 4, 2012 – the amazing clinical trial results of a now FDA-approved cancer drug I helped co-invent were presented to the world. Being involved with a FDA-approved drug often only happens once in a scientist’s entire career. As both a scientist and someone with an intimate viewpoint of cancer – along with my sister I was an end-of-life caregiver for my Mother’s early-onset pancreatic cancer – I was elated to have struck a blow against the beast. I was walking on air.
Then only 6 hours later after an ironically timed colonoscopy, I heard these words told to my wife: “He has colon cancer. We’ll schedule an emergency surgery immediately” A moment that will be seared in my memory for the rest of my life. One of the best days of my life immediately turned into the worst. At that moment I transitioned from being a cancer drug scientist to being a cancer survivor. Ever since, I have been both.
A cancer diagnosis was a complete surprise to me. I had experienced alternating diarrhea and constipation for about 9 months but even as a cancer scientist, neither I nor my physician recognized the CRC warning signs. Why? I was only 40. I was in good overall health, ate reasonably well, exercised, was a healthy weight, and was a non-smoker. Yes, there was a history of colon cancer in my family – but all of them were diagnosed in their 60’s. Because of the family history, ironically, to be “extra safe”, I planned to have my first colonoscopy at age 40. At age 40, I was already metastatic.
I was initially diagnosed Stage IIIc, so I began 6 months of standard of care chemotherapy, attempting a cure. After a recurrence however showing that my cancer was chemo-resistant and unable to be cured surgically, thus began my “adventures in living terminally optimistic” as a currently incurable Stage IV patient. How did I approach my diagnosis? At first, I think like most people – with a sense of overwhelming panic and dread. Staring death in the face, especially as a young person, causes that to happen!
At that point something clicked however. When I saw my two little girls, I remembered that I had so much to live for. The oncology scientist in me began to take control. I decided. “OK, this is a scientific problem. I am a scientist & 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 scientific research project of my entire life. A very personal example of the importance of research & research funding! That was now almost 4 years ago. I am even more terminally optimistic now than I was upon diagnosis!
I have performed oncology drug discovery research for over 20 years. I can honestly say there has never been as much true excitement amongst oncology scientists ever about the incredible pace of new & exciting cancer drug breakthroughs as right now. These breakthroughs range from improved targeted therapies, to novel treatment methods such as viral and cellular therapies, to the truly groundbreaking & paradigm shifting checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies! This is not hype. Now that immunotherapies have recently been showing significant clinical activity in multiple advanced cancers, the entire field of oncology drug discovery has been transformed. The required technology & scientific pieces are starting to come together with the new goal to cure significant numbers of patients with advanced stage cancer.
This is why I always describe myself as “currently incurable” because from my inside view, I see so many promising new cancer drugs & strategies, I can’t feel anything but optimistic that major cancer treatment breakthroughs are right around the corner! I am a firm believer that once you have a critical mass of research funding, brilliant scientists and a strong drive to succeed (all scientists know someone who has been stricken by cancer), the human race can solve any problem – including cancer. I believe we are currently living in that moment for cancer drug discovery.
Will new advances be made fast enough to save my life? I firmly believe and know that most cases of advanced colon cancer will be cured within my wife’s lifetime – I hope and believe there is a chance that it will happen in my lifetime! The key to that hope is continued high levels of CRC research & research funding.
Research & research funding is fundamental to all “three hats I wear”: Patient—Scientist—Advocate and that is why I am a strong supporter of the Never Too Young Coalition for early-onset CRC.