Editor’s note: Science Editor Colleen Steelquist wrote about her sister-in-law, Jenny, and her fight against multiple myeloma, a cancer of blood plasma cells, in Quest and on our blog. Jenny, who was in the care of Fred Hutch researchers at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance—the Hutch’s treatment arm—died April 2. Here, we share a heartfelt reflection about her care written by Jenny’s husband, Bob.
Many times I’ve driven past the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance campus and wondered how I would react to seeing those bright brick buildings after Jenny had died. Would I be overcome with grief? Frustration? Anger? Would I have to look away?
Happily, none of the above. And quite the opposite—I now get a strong sense of joy, of promise and of reflection on so many days of Jenny’s treatment when we were strong and Jenny was making it her workplace—the foundry of her remaining days.
Yesterday, I took the opportunity to visit Fred Hutch and SCCA and have lunch with Drs. Bill Bensinger and Zandra Klippel, Jenny’s oncology team. Both of them are Fred Hutch researchers. Bill oversaw Jenny’s treatment for myeloma after her transplants and guided us through numerous clinical trials. His stature in the myeloma world is unparalleled.
The confidence that he inspired in Jenny was, I believe, a strong factor in her strength and determination. Zandra worked most closely with Jenny as a postdoctoral fellow under Bill and spent the most time with us over the last year in the clinic.
Zandra is blessed with deep compassion and empathy for her patients, an ability to go well beyond symptoms and treatments and find the whole patient. She is also a gifted researcher, spending her non-clinic hours working on emergent therapies for myeloma that will, we hope, extend the lives of many future patients.
The lunch gave me an opportunity to share Jenny’s final days with them and perhaps give them the comfort of knowing that their work was not in vain—that they furnished the gift of time that let us prepare for Jenny’s death with acceptance and the knowledge that she and I did our best.
Like all of us, they miss Jenny. They each reflected on her contributions to their day to day, her contributions to myeloma research and her example to other patients and families. We spoke of the wealth of data Jenny left through her participation in clinical trials. We reflected on her presence at clinic, her humor—even her scarves.
A few months ago, while I was searching myeloma clinical trials, I encountered an abstract of a paper reporting a novel therapy under trial in Denmark and Boston. The experiment involved the use of a human antibody.
I mentioned the trial to Zandra, who hadn’t heard of it. She mentioned it to Bill, who was immediately enthusiastic about its potential—for Jenny—and others with the risk factors that made her disease so lethal.
At the time, Zandra cautioned that, even if they could participate in the trial, it would take time. Perhaps too much time to benefit Jenny. During our lunch, Bill confirmed that he has had discussions with the pharmaceutical company that produces the antibody and has been asked to develop a research proposal to explore its potential. He has asked Zandra to co-lead the project with another Hutch researcher.
I couldn’t be more gratified.
Jenny’s and my journey into the strange territory of cancer brought us to remarkable experiences, unforgettable people, and emotional growth that was unimaginable.
We made that odyssey with so many others—patients who have passed before, patients surviving now and the cancer patients of the future. We were accompanied by doctors and nurses and technicians and researchers—a long line reaching from the past toward the future.
Brilliant minds and bright hearts. And nothing about that progression was stationary. We moved among this pilgrimage. And Jenny helped move this collective effort with her example and her own effort.
The journey brought us also to a place. A city within a city. Bright brick buildings teeming with people dedicated to healing others and being healed themselves.
A place of sacrifice and frequent disappointment. But also a place of promise and example. Of the best of compassion and the applied power of human intelligence.
No. I don’t have a problem driving past the site. I do shed tears, but not of loss or regret. I feel joy. I feel a deep connection to Jenny and to the good that happens at Fred Hutch and SCCA.
Bob Steelquist is the education and outreach coordinator at the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Port Angeles, Wash. He is a naturalist and author of 12 books.