A son remembers the life of his father, beloved oncologist Dr. Stephen Petersdorf

Portrait of Andrew Petersdorf in front of an image of his father, Stephen Petersdorf
"No matter who you are, life can change so suddenly," said Andrew Petersdorf, who lost his father, oncologist Dr. Stephen Petersdorf, nearly a year ago to colon cancer. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

My dad was always there. One of my first memories of him is from when I was 3 or 4 years old and my family was at Disney World. We were on a boat when I saw Captain Hook – I was scared. I ran behind my dad, who protected me and told me it was going to be OK. He then encouraged me to face my fear and walk up to Captain Hook and meet him. I did – and then, of course, Captain Hook and I were buddies sailing down the river, off to Neverland like I had imagined over and over again.

I figured my dad had walked with me and was right behind me, but at some point I turned around and realized he’d stayed back to instead support me from afar. Although he was not next to me, truly, he was always there.

I’ve been thinking about that lately as we come up to the first anniversary of his death on June 28. He was 55 when he died of colon cancer.

My dad was Dr. Stephen Petersdorf,  an oncologist who treated patients at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the first holder of the Endowed Chair in Cancer Care at the University of Washington. He was a very focused and determined physician who was named by Seattle Magazine as one of the top doctors of the year from 2002 to 2012, before he left SCCA to focus on research at Seattle Genetics.

My father was also dedicated to my brothers Nicholas (now 25) and Colin (17). He expected the best of us and always told us that if you’re going to do something, whether it was school, sports, relationships, etc., you better do it to the best of your ability. If you aren’t, you are wasting your time and everyone else’s. He was always incredibly supportive – he spent all of his “free time” driving us all over the place for practices, games, rehearsals and concerts. He was always there.

I started playing baseball when I was 5 – my dad was my first coach. Thanks to him, I am playing collegiately today. Over the years, up until I went away to college, I think my dad probably only missed about 5 percent of my games ... and I played a lot of games. The same goes for my brothers, who played lacrosse and football. He was always there to support us even if that meant leaving work early and then having to work from home late – that’s what he did. He was always there.

My dad was kind of quiet but you never had to ask if he loved you because you just knew. If I ever had to go to him, no matter the issue, he somehow already knew before I told him. He was in tune with us boys. He demonstrated his love for us by his actions. He was always there.

He was that way with his patients, too. He worked so hard at his profession to save lives. He was so good at what he did. No matter how difficult work would be, he was always there for his patients and for his family.

In the fall of 2013, I was at school. It was a Friday morning right before the break. I was flying home the next morning. I got a message from my dad asking me to call him to go over some stuff. I did and when he answered I asked, “Is everything all right?” And he said, “No, not really.”

He told me something “funny” had popped up on one of his screenings and there “might be a little cancer there.”  He told me to stay calm, although he was going to have surgery the next week, scheduled for the same day I was supposed to return to school, and he wondered if I wanted to extend my trip home. He told me the university already knew. My parents notified the school before me to make sure that I was taken care of and would not fall behind in my studies.  They were so prepared and forward thinking that they’d already handled that. Now, I had to be there for him. We all had to be there.

He personally knew all the doctors treating him. That was a big relief for us boys. Our job was to just keep doing normal things – that is what would make him the happiest.

The surgery removed most of the tumor but it took a toll. He’d been a big, burly guy and he was getting skinny. Then he started chemo. But no matter what was going on, he was always checking in on us boys to make sure we were doing OK and were on track with school. He was always there.

The chemo was working but there was one spot that wouldn’t respond so he switched to radiation. Then other spots came up and spread so he had to do chemo again. You can only take so much chemo and radiation to fight the cancer.

We woke up one morning and his speech was slurred. We rushed him to the ER and they had to do a blood test to find out what was going on. It turned out the cancer had been spreading.

Things were not looking very good. He knew his last round of chemo probably was not going to help, but he went through with it to try and stay with us as long as he could.

Everything was hard for him – eating, sleeping, drinking. But he was always there.

About a week before he died, my mom sat down with each of us boys individually and then as a group to let us know he was dying. That was when it hit me like a freight train. Back when my dad first told me he had cancer he said, “I’m going to beat this for you guys.” That was always his mentality.

We brought him home and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. We moved his bed to the family room near the kitchen so we could all hang out. We did that practically all day, every day for a week.  A few days before he died, his doctor made a house call to see him and my dad asked him questions, like how long he might have to live and other specifics on his condition.

After the doctor left, my dad leaned over to me and said, “I knew all the answers to those questions.” His brain was there the entire time, but his body couldn’t keep up. He was so smart; you couldn’t get anything by him.

At that time I was home for summer and taking a class at the University of Washington (of course, I was encouraged by my parents to get ahead on credits). I never wanted to leave him to go to class but my dad always made me go and said, “I’ll still be here when you get back.” Even in that last week he was reiterating the values he’d instilled in us about working hard.  He taught me not to do things half-heartedly. He took a lot of things, including cancer, full on.

He passed away just before 1 a.m. on June 28. We were all there that night and had been watching him breathe. Then it just stopped. We stayed up until 6 or 7 a.m., sitting with him and telling stories. We were all there.

It’s hard because after he died, I wished he was still here, but at the same time, it was a relief he wasn’t suffering anymore. For the first few weeks I felt guilty saying that. I soon came to the realization, though, that someday, when there are more ways to fight and hopefully end cancer, my father has helped both as a doctor and as a patient.

Sometimes I’ll be out and someone will hear my last name and ask if he was my father and I’ll find out they used to be his patient or be a family member of one of his patients. That’s cool for me.  People tell me nothing but great things about him and my grandfather, Dr. Robert Petersdorf, who was the chair of the UW Department of Medicine and the chief of medicine at Harborview.  My mother, Dr. Effie Petersdorf, is a professor of medicine at UW, a member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch and is president of the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation.

There was never any pressure for me or my brothers to go into medicine, but my family showed us that if you are going to put so much effort into a career, you should do something that makes a difference. No matter what your focus is, you can always help others in some way. My older brother works in McKinsey & Company’s health care practice with a focus on provider growth, and my little brother is thinking about a career in medicine after university. Although I am studying economics at Kenyon College, I am interested in a career in the medical field in some way, shape or form. As of this summer, all three of us boys will have interned at Fred Hutch.

In his life, my dad taught me numerous lessons. He did in his death, too – about what it means to be selfless, diligent and loving. No matter who you are, life can change so suddenly. So, care earnestly. Work meticulously. And love endlessly.

Today, I imagine my dad is still with me, prompting me to face my challenges head-on. He is still supporting me from afar to walk up and meet Captain Hook. Truly, he is always here, encouraging me all the way from Neverland.

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.