Jan 22, 2018 9:00 AM

Lissy Coley and Tom Kursar
Lissy Coley and Tom Kursar on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, circa 2000. Photo by Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Updated November 2018. In memory of Tom Kursar.

Tom Kursar and his wife, Phyllis (Lissy) Coley, are used to working together. The two lead a research group in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah. He holds the rank of professor, and she is a distinguished professor. Their main area of study is how tropical rainforest plants defend themselves against the creatures that eat them. Tom and Lissy travel often to jungles of the Amazon and Central America to gather data for their research.

When Tom was diagnosed with Stage IIB pancreatic cancer on Valentine’s Day 2017, their working relationship grew even more intense. “I became the tiger wife,” says Lissy. She felt the need to do everything possible to help Tom.

“Because we are scientists, we need to know the details of how and why,” says Tom. The two asked many questions about Tom’s treatment plan and what to expect. They say their surgeon, Sean Mulvihill, MD, Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) investigator and professor of surgery at the University of Utah, always gave excellent explanations for everything they asked.

The first phase of treatment was three months of Fulfurinox chemotherapy, a drug combination specifically for treating pancreatic cancer, to shrink the tumor before attempting surgery. Tom had a rough time with severe nausea from the drug. Lissy called his cancer care team because he was losing so much weight, and they had him come in for intravenous antinausea medicine. Within an hour, Tom was saying, “I’m hungry. I want a sandwich.”

Dr. Mulvihill did a Whipple procedure to remove part of Tom’s pancreas. “Because of the tumor’s location, he told us there was a chance the surgical team could start the operation and find out it couldn’t be removed,” Tom says.

“The fact that he was able to do the procedure as planned was a huge relief,” says Lissy.

Now Tom’s treatment plan continues with gemcitabine and capecitibine chemotherapy. He’s recovering well, and the side effects are much less than before.

Over the months of Tom’s treatment, the support HCI offers for patients and caregivers has been important to Lissy and Tom. Angelique Colemere, LCSW, an HCI social worker, has helped the couple with coping and practical issues. Lissy and Tom both took a one-day Big Mind/Big Heart workshop with Paul Thielking, MD, from HCI’s Supportive Oncology and Survivorship service, which helped them learn relaxation and coping skills. Lissy remembers the emotional release she felt during a massage at the Wellness and Integrative Health Center: “I hadn’t realized how much I was holding in as I dealt with Tom’s illness.”

“Lissy and I have grown much closer,” says Tom. “Her love and support has by far been the most important thing for me during all of this.”

Even while still in the hospital after his surgery, Tom and Lissy took walks on the cancer hospital patio. Their walks included an unusual amount of observing different species of bees and flowers in the landscaping. “We looked at these more than before because we are paying much more attention to the little things, the things that get lost in the rush of a usual day,” says Tom.

As Tom’s recovery continues, the couple have been backpacking to secret off-trail locations in the Uinta Mountains, northeast of Salt Lake City. The hikes started small, but one of their most recent trips was three miles that climbed about 1,000 feet in elevation from beginning to end. “I only carry a 15-pound pack,” Tom admits. “Lissy carries 40 pounds.”

Between trips, Tom maintains his strength by exercising at a local gym. “I’m hoping to be ready for field work in French Guiana with Lissy next spring,” he says.

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