How a Colon 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

Todd Jackman remembers sitting alone in a McDonald’s parking lot near the Grand Canyon, fighting the emotion he felt building in his chest.

“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 the then head of translational research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. He was looking for answers about the colorectal cancer diagnosis he had received just days prior to his family’s Grand Canyon vacation.

“I remember the oncologist saying, essentially, no... 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 in the presence of great beauty, watching the sunrise with my family,” Todd said. “It was a really emotional time for me.”

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.  Unfortunately, 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.

“I emailed the then head of translational research at Fox Chase immediately, asking hard questions about my diagnosis,” Todd said. “To my surprise, he responded right back and gave me his phone number. That really impressed me.”

Starting Strong at Fox Chase

As a biologist, Todd wanted to learn everything he could about his cancer.
As a biologist, Todd wanted to learn everything he could about his cancer.

After one phone call with El-Deiry, Todd became a patient at Fox Chase.

He met first with both his original contact and his medical oncologist Paul Engstrom, MD, FACP – “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  Elin Sigurdson, MD, PhD, FACS, FRCS (C), 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 he 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,” said Todd. “Research isn’t something most radiation oncologists do.”

As part of the trial, Todd’s doctors took a biopsy of his tumor. Inspired to sequence the DNA of his tumor himself, Todd asked for biopsy samples and worked with a variety of Fox Chase researchers and oncologists (including gastrointestinal cancer geneticist Michael Hall, MD, MS, and bioinformatics expert Eric Ross, PhD, ScM) to understand his cancer genome DNA, all while undergoing treatment.

“I had a whole team of people looking after me and making sure that I was okay 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.

Shifting perspectives

Todd Jackman

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’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. And it’s because I started at Fox Chase.”

Learn more about Colorectal Cancer Treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center. 

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