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Barron H. Lerner

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P.J. Lukac, a Medical Student, Researches and Fundraises for His Own Disease: Brain Cancer

Posted: 03/ 7/2012 12:25 pm

The last thing that Paul Lukac thought he had when he developed periods of confusion during his second year of medical school was a brain tumor. After all, he was studying neuropathology, abnormal brain tissue, and that would have been too great a coincidence.

But Paul, known as P.J., had a brain tumor, and a very serious one: a variant of a glioblastoma. He was diagnosed in January 2009. This May in Chicago, P.J., now finishing his fourth year at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, will be running in his fourth consecutive "Breakthrough for Brain Tumors" 5K race to raise funding for brain tumor research.

Being a medical student with a serious disease has not been easy, but P.J. has discovered some surprising benefits.

P.J.'s initial symptoms, which began in October 2008, were actually quite complicated. In addition to the confusion, he would have songs stuck in his head but not know the actual words or how he knew the song. He initially dismissed his symptoms as anxiety, not an uncommon affliction of medical students.

Eventually, when back home in Chicago over Christmas break, P.J. saw a neurologist. Next was an MRI, which showed a brain tumor pushing on the amygdala and hippocampus, two very important areas of the brain. A biopsy brought more bad news: P.J. had a glioblastoma, a highly malignant cancer. But there was a twist. The tumor tissue had some atypical features that made it a less aggressive cancer.

Still, P.J. underwent very extensive treatment at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, including surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. Gradually, the cancer shrank away. P.J.'s MRIs, which he gets every three to six months, remain negative.

P.J. did have to take a year off from medical school, but in some ways, he was just as busy. While undergoing treatment, he worked in Dr. Markus Bredel's research laboratory at Northwestern studying -- you guessed it -- glioblastomas. During P.J.'s time there, he and his colleagues identified 31 genes associated with the tumor.

And P.J. also began fundraising, participating in his first Breakthrough for Brain Tumors run, sponsored by the American Brain Tumor Association, in May 2009. He had set a goal of $25,000, but his "Team Peej" wound up raising over $60,000. Team Peej is now accepting contributions on P.J.'s webpage. The current total is already over $5,000.

I teach at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and have been following P.J.'s story over the years. I have been especially interested in how his classmates have responded to having someone so ill in their midst. There are many articles in the medical literature about how doctors and other medical personnel actually have difficulty dealing with illness among their peers.

P.J. happily reported to me that his classmates, both the original ones and those in the new class he has since joined, have been "uniformly supportive." A large number have not only donated money but have flown to Chicago to run in the 5K race. One, Udo Paz, designed wristbands for Team Peej, which have raised an additional $3,000.

I also asked P.J. about what effect his illness has had on his choice of subspecialty within medicine. Interestingly, he had originally been planning a career as an oncologist for adult cancer patients. But he has shifted gears toward pediatric oncology at this point, having done two rotations in this field.

"I have seen many newly diagnosed, young cancer patients," he told me. "Because of what I have gone through, I know everything racing through their minds. I know what they need to hear."

P.J. has also developed strong bonds with the parents of these children, who, understandably, see him as inspiring and a role model. Mothers of children with cancer have also contacted him over the Internet after seeing him on television. P.J. is now friends with many of them, including one who recently lost her son.

"Doctors think scientifically," P.J. said. "That is how we are trained." But he is now "comfortable developing personal relationships" with patients and families. "I am more passionate," he admitted.

Speaking of passion, P.J.'s saga has had one more positive consequence. When he returned to Columbia in January 2010, he needed to join a four-person group for an introductory course on patient care. An observant faculty member found a group that she believed would be particularly good at welcoming P.J. back.

One member of that group was Sarah Adams. She and P.J. have been dating for almost two years.

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