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Cancer—My Grief and My Gratitude

Apr 16, 2021 11:00 AM

When I meet people, I am often asked why I work for a cancer center. I am asked if I find the work depressing or feel defeated by what I do.


Like so many of you, I came to the cancer work via personal grief. My grief was lifted by the hope offered by cancer research.

When my best friend, Kimmy, was diagnosed with Hodgkin disease when she was 15, there was really nothing that could be done to save her. The process of end of life was excruciating. Her care was directed by one of the best cancer centers at the time in the United States. Despite this, the world lost her in December 1979. She was a brilliant student. Even before she was diagnosed with cancer, she had always had a life goal to pursue a career in science. She would have done beautiful acts of grace and good for our world.

Kimmy’s cancer is easily cured today. In hard moments, I still grieve the fact that had her diagnosis happened ten years into the future, she would be here. She was simply diagnosed too soon for research to offer her a recovery. Losing Kimmy was my first personal cancer grief.

It wasn’t my last. My father, father-in-law, and some dear friends since then have been taken by cancer. And always, when I have felt sad or weak in the face of cancer, my gratitude always grows from the promise of research.

This past weekend a friendly question was posed to Huntsman Cancer Foundation. A person asked why people should support cancer research. The asker was well-intended and truly curious. We could tell that she was also somewhat discouraged about curing cancer. (This is a bit longer than I usually post in my monthly message, but if you’re curious about our conversation, I wanted to share)

Here in part is Huntsman Cancer Foundation’s reply.

Cancer is an extremely complicated disease with more than 200 types. What works for some cancers does not work in treating other cancers. What works for some people with cancer doesn’t work for all people—even when they have the same type of cancer. This is why research continues to this day. And many cancers are cured EVERY DAY. Hooray!

Other cancers are now treated as chronic diseases. While they cannot necessarily be cured, they can be successfully managed so that they do not rob a person of years of life. Early diagnosis certainly is one of the best tools to cure cancer, and prevention can be the cure.

Cancer research requires an incredibly nuanced conversation. Years ago, when I was feeling defeated about the progress in cancer, I picked up a book called The Emperor of All Maladies. It is a biography about cancer and traces mankind’s 2,000-year quest to defeat the disease(s). It is a fantastic tool to better understand what people who research and treat cancer, and the patients who fight it, are up against. It is breathtakingly inspiring to read about the ways mankind has battled this dreaded disease—from cutting out a tumor (surgery) to burning the tumor (radiation) to poisoning the disease (chemo). Now we have advanced to newer realms of battling the disease. Throughout history, advance after advance has created more cancer survivors than ever before.

New treatments, brought to the clinic all the time, are essential to keeping the disease at bay. Many who walk among us are here thanks to cancer research. But until the disease is completely eradicated, research is needed. Currently, available protocols fail for some patients. For others, there is no treatment that can help today. This is not acceptable. But let’s not overlook what has already been accomplished. For example, in the 1960s when a child was diagnosed with leukemia, the prognosis was horrible. Eighty-five percent of all children diagnosed died due to the disease. Today, the rate of survival for this deadly childhood cancer is over 90%. This is an incredible change. Even better, some cancers, like colon cancer, can be prevented altogether today.

Research, facilities, and equipment cost dearly. When you drive by our hospital, you will see that we are currently expanding our clinical space by 220,000 square feet. This addition includes 48 more private inpatient rooms, a Center for Women, expanded bone marrow transplant capacity, and a Survivorship and Wellness Center. The expansion costs $148 million. At the same time, we also installed a proton therapy vault this year. This is a specialty treatment piece of equipment for people with head, neck, and spine cancers. Our proton therapy tool will be the only one available to patients within 1,200 miles and offers less harmful impacts to critical structures of the body such as the brain and spinal cord. This equipment costs $32 million.

So simply put, Huntsman Cancer Institute needs your support because our human community, in Utah and beyond, needs your support when it comes to cancer. Cheers to continuing to fulfill the vision of a cancer-free frontier!

And also simply put, we have the best jobs in the world. We are grateful to be part of creating hope for those who will follow in our footsteps.


Susan Sheehan
President and COO
Huntsman Cancer Foundation

Susan Sheehan

President and COO, Huntsman Cancer Foundation