In December 2009, Dr. Joe Sottnik accomplished something remarkable. He became the first graduate of the Cancer Biology PhD Program in the Animal Cancer Center, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, at Colorado State University. But that’s not the remarkable part. The path Dr. Sottnik traveled that eventually brought him to the program is one not many can even imagine, much less attempt. A cancer camp volunteer, cancer survivor, and now cancer researcher – Dr. Sottnik’s story is one of a supportive network of friends and family and colleagues, personal resilience and persistence, and the passionate desire to make a difference.
Dr. Sottnik grew up outside of Denver near Centennial and in his junior year of high school became aware of several people around him dealing with cancer. His mother’s cousin had cancer, and a friend’s mother was diagnosed with leukemia. Their struggles impacted him and he wanted to do something to give back to the community. His art history teacher suggested he work at Sky High Hope Camp, a summer camp for children fighting cancer.
“When I went, I had this stereotypical idea in my head of what these kids would be like,” said Dr. Sottnik.” I thought they would be sick and bald, but that wasn’t the case. It was really something to see these kids go through it (cancer treatment) and come out normal, still acting like kids.
“CSU had a big presence at the camp. I met a lot of the staff from the Animal Cancer Center and also met Dr. (Stephen) Withrow. I was interested in going to medical school at the time and they did everything they could to make that a reality, answering my questions and providing encouragement.”
When it was time to pick a university, Dr. Sottnik decided on Colorado State University. But the summer before his freshman year he started to get sick. His body started swelling, his blood pressure was elevated, and one day he found himself in the emergency room where tests revealed a mass in his chest as well as kidney disease. The resident oncologist suspected cancer, but tests came back negative. Dr. Sottnik was treated for kidney disease and the mass in his chest turned out to be benign so his physicians decided to watch and wait. To placate his frantic parents, he decided to hold off on coming to CSU and instead went to a local community college for his first semester.
In the spring, Dr. Sottnik transferred to Colorado State University where he decided to major in biological sciences and minor in biomedical sciences, history, and anthropology. He was just about to begin his final semester in January 2004 when a check-up showed that the mass in his chest had changed.
“I had a check-up and some tests came back weird; the site was more active,” said Dr. Sottnik. “I had a biopsy, CT scans, then my surgeon took the mass out and found out that it was lymphoma. Everyone wanted me to quit school, but I wanted to finish.”
Chemotherapy took five months. Dr. Sottnik would go to chemo on Friday, stay home for the weekend, and make it back in time to go to class on Monday. He wasn’t always in good shape, said Dr. Sottnik, “but my professors were great. They knew what I was going through.”
The friendships he had developed at the Animal Cancer Center during the previous six years also showed their strength. Dr. Withrow and other faculty and staff members would drive Joe back and forth from Denver to get him to and from his treatments. At the end of five months, his chemotherapy was complete and Joe had his Bachelor’s of Science from Colorado State University, as well as a diploma in life experience. During his final semester, along with chemotherapy, Joe applied to medical schools --a process that was challenging at best.
“During interviews, I think they might have wondered if I physically had what it took to start medical school – I looked pretty rough – and I was not accepted,” said Dr. Sottnik, who decided to continue with his studies at Colorado State University enrolling in the Plan B Master’s Program in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. “I had also started working in Nicole Ehrhart’s lab and was getting interested in research. After I completed my master’s degree, Dr. Withrow encouraged me to apply to the new Cancer Biology PhD Program.”
In his PhD program, Dr. Sottnik’s research focused on the key links between the immune system and cancer, in particular on the connection between an increase in survival times and the rate of bone infection in animals with osteosarcoma. In December 2009, he became the first student to graduate from the Cancer Biology PhD Program at the Animal Cancer Center. He will be staying at the Animal Cancer Center for the next six months to continue cancer immunology research before pursuing a postdoctoral position.
When he looks back over the past 10 years, Dr. Sottnik can’t help but see how he has come full circle – from volunteering at a camp for cancer patients, to becoming a cancer patient and survivor, and now a researcher focused on finding new weapons in the battle against cancer.
“Throughout this, my inspiration has been the kids at Sky High Hope Camp and my experiences there,” said Dr. Sottnik. “Seeing those kids, I knew I needed to do something to help. I don’t like thinking about numbers and odds, but I’m five years off treatment now, and having been a cancer patient gives me a unique perspective. I’m looking forward to what the future brings.”
(The Cancer Biology PhD Program is made possible by generous donations from Animal Cancer Center benefactors and clients. For more information or to make a gift to support research, teaching, scholarships and stipends in cancer biology, contact Paul Maffey, CVMBS Director of Development, at Paul.Maffey@colostate.edu, or visit the Animal Cancer Center web site at www.csuanimalcancercenter.org.)