“My Voice” by Fed Bernal, Ph.D.

Fed Bernal Ph.D. - 'Survivor'

11.22.06    Chemical Manipulation of SAH-p53-8
Purpose:    To optimize, through asymmetric dihydroxylation of its olefin cross-link, the solubility properties of a stapled peptide that targets the oncoprotein HDM2 in osteosarcoma cells
–Laboratory Notebook Number III of Fed Bernal, Ph.D.

I literally stumbled into the field of cancer chemical biology.  Having been trained as a synthetic organic chemist in graduate school, I had become proficient at making compounds in the laboratory.  Eventually I lost interest in making molecules just for the sake of making them.  I wanted to see what I could do with the materials I made in the lab, and I found that their most productive application would be to use them to poke at cells and see what makes them tick. I lucked out by securing a postdoctoral position in a lab that had a long-standing collaboration with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. After many years of training in biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology, I feel confident that I can now don the hat of a cancer chemical biologist, someone who uses synthetic compounds to study the molecular pathways that lead to the manifestation of cancer –and if we are lucky, devise better treatments.  Academic training has come a long way in understanding cancer and its biological underpinnings, but it certainly did not go far enough in preparing me for what I discovered the day I was doing a “chemical manipulation of SAH-p53-8” in the lab.

On November 22, 2006 (the day before Thanksgiving), I woke up in the morning with an odd back pain.  I chalked it up to an old hockey injury and lugging my then 1½ -year-old daughter all over the place.  I popped a couple of pain killers, and went on my way to work.  The lab was empty because everyone had gone home for the long weekend, so I had the place to myself.  I was sitting in front of the mass spectrometer analyzing some data when the odd pain resurfaced.  I was somewhat perplexed about the origin of the pain, and in what was a “eureka” moment, I realized that the pain was actually coming from my groin.  I raced to the bathroom, did a testicular self exam, and immediately noticed that my right testicle had shrunk, was as hard as a rock, and it was most definitely the source of the pain.  Working at a cancer center gives me access to all the confines of the medical literature, and I read of many things I saw as potential culprits: a hydrocele, a varicocele, epididymitis, a testicular torsion or testicular cancer.  The next step was a no-brainer; I immediately contacted my GP, who advised me to go straight to the emergency room because no doctors were available to see me promptly.

I took a somewhat leisurely stroll to the emergency room, where I was immediately sent to triage (note to self: testicular pain will get you seen in the ER quickly).  After the triage nurse took my medical history and performed a physical exam, the next step was to get a scrotal ultrasound.  The whole exam lasted about 15 minutes, and the gravity of the situation did not sink in until I was carted out of the ultrasound room.  Everyone (nurses, orderlies, residents) was staring at me.  The chief of the ER showed up to see what was going on, at which point I demanded answers.  Eventually the urology consult showed up, and after seeing that I had an employee badge from Dana-Farber, he decided not to water the news down, “We found four solid masses in your right testicle.  95% of the time they are malignant, so the testicle will have to come out.”

There is a lot of reading one can do on the subject of testicular tumors, their etiology, and their treatment, and I fully immersed myself in the literature in preparation for my orchidectomy and whatever subsequent treatment I would need –and fortunately the surgery was sufficient to put me in remission.  If there is one thing I learned from this, though, is that cancer cannot be treated solely as a physical ailment of defective genes in cells.  Cancer has an uncanny ability to do a number on one’s head, and sometimes the thought train is unstoppable.  Given my diagnosis of seminoma, I never worried about dying, but I knew that the thought did cross the minds of my immediate family members.  Moreover, the stress of scans and the fear of the disease returning were dreadful specters.  They say that anything in excess is toxic, and this is one of the instances in which thinking too much will drive you nuts (or nut, in my case… I gotta make use of some self-deprecating humor every once in a while).

The key to surmounting these obstacles was to channel the fear elsewhere.  I have always been a thorn on the side of politicians, and I have ramped up my heckling efforts in order to push for cancer research funding.  I have become involved providing support to other testicular cancer survivors both online at the tc-cancer.com forum and in person by visiting my fellow brethren in the chemo floor at work.  Most importantly, my work in the lab has greater significance.  I study cancer in the lab, and having been hit with the disease myself puts yet another face to the work I do, my own.

My wife and I recently welcomed our second daughter to the world.  The birth of a child is always a momentous occasion, but her arrival after a bout with cancer makes the event much more special.  Notwithstanding the fact that my lab-based fight against cancer is now personal, my daughter’s birth is undeniable proof of a very subtle and important point: there is life after cancer, and I am not alone in this fight.  Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  Doing exactly what Ferris said is what makes me a survivor.