Vegetarians don’t understand what I am about to tell you. I know they like to tell you that veggie-burgers can be just as good; but anyone with a true addiction to the great North American bovine knows it is simply false. So here it goes: my father has not had a cheeseburger in 18 months. On the law of averages in this country that would make him a carnivorous outlier. But Bernie is no ordinary carnivore. Dad is a man who enjoys his burgers so much that a table of raucous companions would come to silence on the rare occasion he would order any another dish at a restaurant. But he has not had a burger in 18 months. The sad fact is that cancer not only takes the people we love, it can also take a way of life.
In 2015, my father was diagnosed with oral cancer. There are usually three questions people immediately ask. No, he never smoked. No, he never once used dip. Yes, he went to a dentist (and an oral surgeon) regularly, but the easily diagnosed precursors were missed. By the time it was caught, it had spread to his jaw bone, two nerves, and his lymphatic system. The overall tumor was the size of a fist. In June of 2015, he underwent his first round of treatment at University of Maryland Cancer Center where doctors are doing groundbreaking research and procedures in oral cancer. My dad now has his leg in his mouth. I know, it sounds funny, but through a procedure call maxillofacial fibula flap, doctors removed his fibula bone and reshaped it into a jaw bone. They also removed all traces of cancerous tissue. That was just the start.
He then went through radiation and chemo in an area of the body where the side effects made it impossible for him to swallow. Next, came months of lymphedema. All the while, he has been unable to eat anything. He has now had multiple feeding tubes and a liquid diet. And over the summer, we heard the words we dreaded, his CT showed spots on his lung. They were small. In fact, after the first scan, the doctors thought they could be anomalies. But after follow-up scans, it was clear they were cancerous. In the moment dad heard the news, he reacted the way anyone might, “I am not going through radiation again. I am not strong enough to fight.” And while I would dispute him on this point, he didn’t have to find out.
Dad was able to be among the last accepted into an immunotherapy trial that enhances his own cells to fight on his behalf with minimal symptoms. Through trial drugs and close monitoring with repeated CT scans, doctors can see exactly how the tumors respond to the treatment. And just two days before this challenge launched, we learned that the size of the tumors in his lungs have shrunk without the debilitating side effects of chemo and radiation. But still, 18 months later, no cheeseburgers.
While it is hard to say, and even harder for him to hear, dad is lucky. He is lucky that medical procedures removed the original tumor and that he was included in a trial that supercharges his cells without destroying him. He is lucky to have good insurance, a great support network, and amazing doctors. He is lucky to have a RN for a wife (way to go mom!) who keeps his medical and mental condition where it needs to be. And he is lucky, even though it was very late, to catch it.
Over the coming weeks, you are going to be exploring CT scans of lungs. Who knows, you might even have an image of my dad. Most likely, you will have the image of someone’s lungs who was not as lucky. But while you look at these images and train computers to support the work of doctors, I would encourage you to also think about the images of people you know who have battled cancer. Put a face to it.
While we are looking deep inside to fight the ills within our own bodies, the smiles on the surface are what matter most. Be proud of how your work might change the way of life for someone who might otherwise miss the diagnosis. This is one the greatest challenges a generation can address. As Vice President Biden said, “One of the reasons to pick the cancer effort is to demonstrate to people that there’s not much beyond our capacity.” I believe that all of you participating in this effort can prove the strength of data to improve the health of our society.
Thank you for your time and your energy to take on this challenge. For many of us, it’s personal. And while there is plenty of prize money for the winner, I will also throw in a burger!
—Written by Patrick Mccreesh