A father’s death — and life — hold lessons for a cancer researcher

By Dr. Jennifer Adair, as told to Mary Engel

Dr. Jennifer Adair
Fred Hutch clinical researcher Dr. Jennifer Adair coordinates clinical trials evaluating how gene therapy can correct mistakes in the genetic code or protect cells from toxic chemotherapy. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

My dad was a huge influence. He always had a lesson for me. As a child, I hated it. He would pull me aside and say, “We need to have a talk.” And I’d say, “Argh.”

I didn’t listen to him a lot of the time as a kid growing up. Then as an adult, I really valued his input. He was the person in my life who was the best at reading other people. His charisma made people feel instantly comfortable. He had a way of being funny, cracking the right joke at the right time. He was a steel salesman for 35 years. He had to work with a lot of characters.

He passed away almost three years ago. He’d been feeling down for a few months and was resisting my input to go to the doctor because my younger sister was getting married.  I remember thinking he was not listening to me just to spite my childhood behavior.

I was here in Seattle at the fitting for my bridesmaid’s dress and my daughter’s dress as flower girl when my mother called and said my father had passed out in the shower. I had to threaten to call 911 from across the country to get him to the ER that Sunday. It reminded me of my senior year in high school when my father threatened to call the police and claim the car had been stolen when I stayed out past curfew one night.

The next day my father called me in the lab and said, “I have cancer. I have a Klatskin tumor.” I work as a cancer researcher, and I had to look it up. I’d never heard of bile duct cancer before. It was humbling.

I went home to Ohio for his surgery and then again for his clinic visits to begin radiation and chemotherapy. My sister married in September. The whole family traveled back to my childhood home for the holidays that winter. Then just four days into 2013, we received the news that the cancer had spread to his lungs, liver, colon and spine. My father declined further treatment.

As a scientist, I get to direct my time and focus. I said, “Look, my father just got diagnosed with this terminal cancer, and he wants to die at home, and I need to be there to support him and my mother.”

It was the first time I’d lived at home since I was 17 years old. I took my youngest child, our daughter, because she was in elementary school and dependent on her mother. She went to the same school I attended, rode the same school bus I rode. Several weeks into the new routine, my daughter introduced me to her new “best friend” from school — whose mother happened to be my childhood best friend whom I had not seen in over two decades. It was something beautiful in the midst of the impending sadness.

Regardless of who you are, when you have a parent or family member or partner who has cancer, and has a type of cancer that’s not curable, and they start talking about really intensive treatment that only gives you a year, it’s not fun. I’m grateful  for my training because it helped me explain some things to him that he didn’t understand, and he and my mother both said over and over again how thankful they were that I could be at those appointments with them, meeting with the hospice nurses and just being there for them.

It was very emotional. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to grasp what was happening before we knew he was going to be passing away. We shared so much in three months that we’d never shared in the previous 35 years that I’d been alive.

In my scientific nature, I started researching cholangiocarcinoma from my parent’s home office, which happened to be my former childhood bedroom. I learned that Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and liver fluke parasites were at an increased risk of this type of cancer and could qualify for VA benefits. My father was a sergeant in a U.S. Air Force command stationed in Thailand during the war and had been subjected to both exposures.

When I asked him about it, he told me: “Jennifer, I do not want to file for those benefits. I may have gotten this cancer from those things, but I was able to come home and work and establish a nest egg that will hopefully take care of your mother.  There are too many young boys and girls who are coming home with missing limbs or other permanent damage that will not even get that opportunity. Save those benefits for them. After I die, you can put my name on the registry of Vietnam vets who had this cancer so that it will add to the data supporting other people’s claims in case they need it, but for now, please leave it be.”

This time, I listened to him.

My daughter and I had traveled with open-ended tickets, arriving on January 19. My father passed away at home, surrounded by my mother, my three sisters and myself on March 19, just three weeks after his 63rd birthday.  

I knew I would never regret those three months. It totally put a curve into my science here. But the truth is, at the time I wouldn’t have cared if I published another paper. I would definitely have cared if I wasn’t there at the bedside when my father passed away or in the weeks leading up to that moment. That’s really when you just have to gauge, “Is this a moment that I might not ever get back?”

At his funeral, over and over again, there was just this outpouring of what a great guy he was. It was then that I started to really appreciate a lot of the sacrifices that he made all of the time. It was never about how good of an impression he could make or how high he could go in the rank order or how much money he could earn, it was about being a good person. That has really made me reflect a lot on my own interactions and say, “OK, maybe there is a lesson here.”

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