How a Cancer Diagnosis Led to a Personal Project for this Biologist
"Where I started my cancer care — that’s something I didn’t take lightly."
— Todd Jackman, Biologist and Colon Cancer Survivor
Todd Jackman remembers sitting alone in a McDonald’s parking lot near the Grand Canyon, fighting the emotion he felt building in his chest.
“Isn’t the fact that I’m healthy and just ran a half-marathon...doesn’t that mean my cancer is not serious?” Todd asked.
It was 2014 and Todd was on the phone with Wafik El-Deiry, MD, PhD, FACP, the head of translational research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. Todd was looking for answers about the colorectal cancer diagnosis he had received just days prior to his family’s Grand Canyon vacation.
“I remember Dr. El-Deiry saying, essentially, no... That it’s possible to get cancer of any stage even if you’re perfectly healthy,” Todd said. “And that sort of got to me.”
Todd said being surrounded by the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon so soon after his diagnosis brought up intensely mixed feelings.
“There were these feelings of dread, not knowing how much longer I was going to live, but also feelings of awe being the presence of great beauty, watching the sunrise with my family. It was a really emotional time for me,” Todd said.
But, Todd didn’t let those feelings stop him from finding out all he could about why and how cancer grew inside his body. “I wanted to learn as much as I could as fast as I could,” he said.
Asking hard questions
Todd is proactive, a doer. He leads an active lifestyle both personally through running and professionally through his work as an evolutionary biologist and professor at Villanova University.
So, when he began noticing bleeding at the age of 49, he got it checked out, assuming it was nothing more than a few hemorrhoids, until a colonoscopy revealed a fairly large tumor. It was Stage II colorectal cancer.
Todd took action, treating his diagnosis like any other research project. The day after he was diagnosed, he started searching for a cancer treatment center with top specialists and the latest research. One name kept popping up: Dr. Wafik El-Deiry. Todd learned about El-Deiry’s background as one of the world’s leading experts on colorectal cancer, translational research, and molecular therapeutics.
“I emailed him immediately, asking hard questions about my diagnosis,” Todd said. “And to my surprise, he responded right back and gave me his phone number. That really impressed me.”
Starting Strong at Fox Chase
After one phone call with El-Deiry, Todd became a patient at Fox Chase.
He met first with both El-Deiry and his medical oncologist Paul Engstrom, MD – “the Wizard of Oz at Fox Chase,” as Todd described him, touching on Engstrom’s accomplished 45-year career in cancer care. They came up with a treatment plan.
Fox Chase’s Chief of General Surgery Elin Sigurdson, MD, PhD, FACS, became Todd’s surgical oncologist, and Joshua Meyer, MD, his radiation oncologist. Meyer was leading a clinical trial evaluating patients with colorectal cancer to see if they benefited from a combination of chemo and radiation or chemotherapy alone, and enrolled Todd.
“It was impressive to me that I was able to talk with Dr. Meyer, not just about radiation, but about genetics as well. Research isn’t something most radiation oncologists do,” Todd said.
As part of the trial, Todd’s doctors took a biopsy of his tumor. Todd was inspired to sequence the DNA of his tumor himself, so he asked for biopsy samples. Todd worked with El-Deiry, gastrointestinal cancer geneticist Michael Hall, MD, MS, and bioinformatics expert Eric Ross to understand his cancer genome DNA, while undergoing treatment.
“I had a whole team of people looking after me and making sure that I was ok personally, that my opinions were valued, and that I knew my options,” he said.
Six months after a few rounds of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and a procedure called a total mesorectal excision (TME), Todd was cancer-free and back in his lab.
Two years after his diagnosis, Todd said he appreciates life now more than ever.
“Cancer puts things into focus, and forces you to think about your life in a way that you hadn’t before. Having gone through that and surviving...it’s an accomplishment different from any other,” Todd said.
Now, Todd said he’s grateful to not have to worry about his health.
“My biggest problem now is that squirrels keep eating all the strawberries in my garden," he said. "Two years ago, I was worried about whether I’d live or die. Now, I’m worried about squirrels and strawberries,” he said.
“And it’s because I started at Fox Chase.”