He was only 31 years old, the autopsy paperwork said.
What could have taken the life of someone just a few years younger than me? Stage 4 lung cancer, the chart said. And Kevin wasn’t a smoker.
I made the first incision. As I worked, it became clear that cancer had overtaken Kevin’s body. Tumor had encased his lungs, growing into the rib cage and heart, blurring the normal anatomical landmarks.
As a pathologist, I have learned that cancer knows no boundaries. It can strike anyone regardless of age, sex, race or class. I’ve also witnessed a disheartening trend over the past few years: many of the patients I see with cancer are younger and younger.
When I began my training, it was eye-opening to diagnose breast cancer in a 40-year-old. Over time, that yardstick has dropped a decade, then more. Once, my colleagues and I would stand in amazement having diagnosed the disease in 30-year-old patients. Now, unfortunately, that bar is set at more like age 20.
What is cancer? Cancer can be microscopic, only a few cells under my microscope, or it can be large and disfiguring. It can be indolent or aggressive. Some cancers may never cause harm while others will be relentless and deadly. This is something I have yet to understand. Many pathologists and other researchers are working on this exact question.
To me, everyone who battles cancer is a hero. Each patient is unique. It might be tumor characteristics seen on a pathologist’s slide or data collected from a clinical trial, but all patients teach us important lessons. They add to our growing understanding of cancer and search for a cure.
Kevin’s oncologist, Dr. Daniel Costa of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, came over to collect some tumor tissue. It turned out that Kevin was one special patient. His tumor harbored a rare mutation in the ALK gene which made him eligible for the then still-experimental inhibitor PF-02341066. Being one of the first patients treated with the drug, he was a pioneer, blazing a path where no one had been before.
Kevin was also an outspoken advocate for lung cancer, working to erase the stigma that it is a patient’s fault because they smoked. Continue reading