Ph.D. interrupted: Dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis

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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 380, Issue 6641.Download PDF

Six months ago, I thought my academic career was finally taking off. Growing up, I was a curious child charmed by nature who dreamed of becoming a scientist. Because I was born into a poor family with little schooling, it was not an easy path. But I made it to university, the first in my family to do so, and chose to study mining engineering, which is highly valued in my home country of Chile. It seemed a prudent choice that would balance economic stability and intellectual satisfaction. By serving as a teaching assistant I also discovered I love teaching. Halfway through my degree, I had no doubts about the next step in my career: pursuing a Ph.D. so I could work at a university, conducting research and teaching. But I thought I could take my time.

Given my upbringing, concerns about economic stability soon overshadowed my passion for a research career. So, after finishing my bachelor’s degree I found a part-time teaching position that offered a comfortable salary. Even so, it was easy to fall into a whirlpool of debt, buying a flat, a new car, holidays—each expense making it more difficult to start the Ph.D. I dreamed of. Time flew.

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I still don’t know how long I’m going to live … but I will keep going for as long as I can.
  • Jorge Cortez Campaña
  • Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the University of La Serena

It took me 5 years and a pandemic to stabilize financially and go ahead with the doctorate. I found a Ph.D. group I really enjoy working in, and everything finally seemed to be on track. I was all set to write my first research proposal, conduct my first fieldwork, and do an internship abroad. My future prospects seemed limitless.

Then, I tore my calf muscle while playing with a kitten my partner and I had recently adopted. The doctor said it should heal on its own, but after a few weeks the pain had not gone away. The doctor sent me for scans to see if I might have blood clots. His worries were confirmed: I had clots not only in my right leg, but also in my lungs. I was in a panic; in just 3 weeks I was due to fly to England to start my internship. A blood thinner medication cleared up the clots, I felt good, and a new flight was booked. I thought this would just be a blip in my plans, one I would quickly forget.

But soon the pain in my leg returned, and in the back of my mind I knew I would not travel. The doctor found that, even though I was taking anticoagulants, I had developed new clots. Further examination found a 10-centimeter tumor in my liver: I had stage 4 cancer.

As a lover of numbers, I asked my oncologist what the survival rate was. One in 20 patients, he said. I heard the words but couldn’t process what they meant. I asked again. Only 5% survive, he said. When I got home and did my own literature searching, I found the doctor’s discouraging prognosis repeated in paper after paper. What had begun as the best year of my life had become perhaps the last year of my life. The worst part was not my own pain, but the sadness I was causing for the people who loved me—my partner, my sister, my parents.

I paused my work and studies to focus on my treatment, which includes chemotherapy and immunotherapy. My mother dropped everything to take care of me, for which I am immensely grateful.

My illness also spurred me to focus on what I really enjoy—and to realize I find even more satisfaction in my work than I had known. Although my Ph.D. is officially on hold, working on my research when I can helps me forget my disease for a few moments here and there, like a temporary escape door. And I’m proud to have made it to a Ph.D. program in the first place, even with the detours and delays. I don’t regret the time it has taken—every step along the way has taught me important lessons and is a part of who I am. I am trying to approach my disease with the same perspective.

Thankfully I have responded well to my treatments and the tumor has shrunk by more than 50%. I still don’t know how long I’m going to live—maybe a few years—but I feel like I have more time. I want to close circles in my life, including my Ph.D. I have so many ideas I want to work on and sometimes I don’t know where I should start, with the sand running through the hourglass right behind me. But I will keep going for as long as I can.

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