A single name raced to Dr. Jim Olson’s mind, pried from his past by a simple question: Can you recall one particularly challenging day from your career?
The name was Keith Strand. The reason was personal. It still is, 17 years later.
“I was on service at Children’s Hospital,” recalled Olson, a pediatric oncologist and scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “The CT team called me down to read some scans. I agreed with the team. It was cancer.”
The patient was Keith Strand, then 13, the son of Dr. Andy Strand, Olson’s longest-serving lab colleague at Fred Hutch.
The scan, performed in May 2000, showed Keith had a Wilms tumor, a form of kidney cancer. Almost immediately, that diagnosis fueled a new relationship between the Strand family and Olson, a renowned brain cancer researcher. In the coming months, he would become equal parts close friend, compassionate co-worker and trusted medical adviser.
“We were lucky we could do that with Jim,” said Andy Strand, who began working with Olson in 1997. “Sure, I could read (the medical literature) and it could describe the treatment to me. But I could also call up Jim and say, ‘What’s the real story here?’ We were able to tap that expertise and get some reassurance.”
Later, Keith would become Olson’s medical inspiration. First, however, there was a disease to treat.
At the time, Keith was about to graduate from eighth grade. A surgeon removed his left kidney. Olson quickly transferred Keith’s care to Dr. Russ Geyer, an oncologist at Seattle Children’s. Keith’s treatment during the spring and summer of 2000 consisted of what Keith later described as a “pretty light regimen of chemo,” administered via an injection at an outpatient clinic.
In January 2001, however, the cancer recurred. Tests showed it had metastasized to Keith’s lungs. The next recommended treatment would be far more rigorous. He faced multiple radiation-therapy treatments from neck to hip. And he would be admitted to Children’s Hospital every other week for alternating three- and five-day stays. During those stretches, he’d receive constant chemotherapy through a port.
“It just sounded horrible,” said Keith’s mom, Annette Strand.
She wanted Olson’s insights on that plan. As Keith underwent another scan at Seattle Children’s, Annette stood outside the imaging room, asking herself the hardest of questions. Olson stopped by and listened.
“Should we do this?” Annette asked him. “I don’t want to put him through agony if there isn’t even any hope.”
“You absolutely have to do this,” Olson replied.
“That,” Annette says now, “was all I needed to hear. It was just the tone of his voice. It wasn’t like [he was saying], ‘This is a one-in-2000 chance.’ [His advice] was, ‘This is the thing to do.’”
Treatment began at Seattle Children’s. Olson occasionally dropped by Keith’s room — always a welcome sight, Keith said.
“He would come through while on rounds as a doctor, and other times he would just stop in and say hey,” Keith said. “It was nice.”
In his lab at Fred Hutch, Olson also looked after his colleague, Keith’s dad.
As he had done with other researchers facing personal crises, Olson encouraged Andy Strand to see the lab as a place of respite, a space where his mind could focus solely on the science of curing disease, not on his son’s grueling treatment.
“We want the building to be a safe place,” Olson said back then. “If you feel like you need to think about Keith and everything that’s going on, just go out of the building and escape. Sometimes, [that necessary break] will last three minutes. Sometimes, it will last three hours. More often, if it lasts three hours, the healthier it’s going to feel.”
With Olson’s encouragement, Andy Strand also temporarily shifted his research focus — from brain cancer to Huntington’s disease, a progressive brain disorder. “I was able to do something parallel,” he said. “It was a little less close to home.”
The second course of treatment, which lasted until the fall of 2001, cured Keith.
But his connection to the Hutch, and its lifesaving science, was just beginning.
In 2006, after many years of occasionally accompanying his father to Olson’s lab for short, casual visits, Keith joined Olson’s team as a college summer intern.
“I didn’t have a 100 percent idea of where I wanted to be in science,” Keith said. “But I knew research, and that kind of discovery had obviously played a big part in me surviving cancer.
“The fact that Jim and my dad were in the lab was a good starting-off point for me.”
And the fact that Olson had played a role in his diagnosis and recovery remained “in the back of my mind,” Keith added. “He was a big part of me being cured. I just had a lot of respect for him from getting to know him a little better when I was sick.”
In Olson’s lab, Keith worked on genetic mouse models of brain cancer as part of the larger team’s work to advance treatments. The science of cancer interested him. But he found the topic “a little too close to home to research.” Instead, it was the lab’s culture, camaraderie and collaboration that truly appealed to him.
Olson has welcomed some of his former patients into his lab as summer interns. It’s about science, but it’s also about helping to alleviate some of the collateral damage that can exist for childhood cancer survivors, he said.
“It can be really hard for a lot of kids who have been treated [for] cancer to get a start on their adult life,” Olson said. “If you look at brain tumor patients, for example, many of the survivors are unable to be in a job. So I feel like if I can give them a little start, they can get a good letter of recommendation.
“I wouldn’t hire my own family but I would hire my cancer family,” Olson added with a grin.
Keith returned for additional summer internships in 2007 and 2008, cementing a deeper pathway into health science. Today, he is Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Denver, studying cardiovascular fibrosis, or the stiffening of blood vessels and heart muscle.
“Keith made a big impact on me, and that shapes our research,” Olson said.
Here’s how: While Olson’s primary research has focused on brain tumors, he recognizes that certain childhood cancers, such as Wilms tumor and sarcomas, deserve more intensive research, Olson said.
“It’s individual kids like Keith that have these other diseases that have really made me say, ‘Can I drop a bunch of other things that I’m doing and pour some energy into that?’ When I think about what kinds of research we should do in each of those other areas, there’s one specific kid in each area that I can remember taking care of that actually drives [me].
“So Keith has stayed with me all these years later,” Olson said.
Now 30, married and living in Denver, Keith calls Olson’s words “a really meaningful compliment.”
And Olson’s sentiment, he said, has caused him to look at his illness, treatment and recovery in a new way.
“I had never thought of my story as being super inspirational. It’s just my life. I lived it and I’m here. I didn’t know that Jim thought I was inspirational,” Keith said. “But I guess when you have other people who aren’t me who have that kind of perspective — and who get inspired — well, that’s really great.”
Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."
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