By Mihir R. Patel, MD, head and neck surgeon at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University
Every year, as the sun rises over the horizon, I lace up my running shoes and join the eager crowd gathered at the starting line of the Winship 5K Run/Walk. It's more than just a race to me. It's a heartfelt tribute and a testament to the indomitable spirit of one patient who left an indelible mark on me.
I remember Jerome Scales vividly, as a passionate runner who faced an unexpected and daunting diagnosis of HPV-driven tonsil cancer. He was part of an important clinical trial that provided a beacon of hope for many, but despite his determination and the best efforts of our medical team, his cancer experience ended in heartbreak.
When Jerome was first diagnosed with tonsil cancer, I was just beginning to find a way to incorporate running into my daily routine. Jerome said, “You just gotta go do it.” He continued to run during most of the period when he was undergoing cancer treatment. At that point, I realized I had no excuses not to run, and I have been running ever since.
Jerome’s passing a few years later ignited a spark to try and better understand HPV-driven cancers at a deeper level. Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a virus that can infect the skin and the lining of your mouth, throat, genitals and anal area. Infections with HPV are common, and for most people, the immune system will get rid of the HPV infection without any symptoms or treatment. But in some cases, HPV can lead to cancer for reasons yet unknown.
We unified the clinical and basic science experts at Winship Cancer Institute and embarked on a journey of investigation. We turned to the Emory Vaccine Center and explained the clinical significance of HPV-driven throat cancer to their director and our fellow Winship researcher, Rafi Ahmed, PhD. The collaboration that bloomed from this shared dedication led us down uncharted paths of research and discovery.
But progress requires support, and that's where Winship Invest$ stepped in. Winship Invest$ is a peer-reviewed program that provides pilot funding to Winship researchers for novel, innovative cancer research projects. The support from Winship Invest$ provided the foundation upon which we built our aspirations. With this financial backing, we set out to transform our vision into reality and to turn our determination into tangible breakthroughs.
Andreas Weiland, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Ahmed’s lab, carried the torch forward, leading our team through investigations within the immune system and its response to chronic HPV infections that eventually turn into cancer. Our collective efforts bore two monumental publications in the prestigious journal Nature for bringing new understanding of how the immune system responds to HPV and for advancing head and neck cancer care.
|Mihir R. Patel, MD|
Each year as I cross the finish line of the Winship 5K, the cheers of the crowd blend with the echoes of Jerome’s unwavering resolve. Every step I take, every breath I draw, is a testament to the patient who inspires us to push beyond our limits, to explore uncharted territories and to achieve what seems impossible.
For me, the Winship 5K is a journey of remembrance, a celebration of resilience and a tribute to the patient whose legacy lives on through our tireless pursuit of progress. And so, every year, I run, driven by purpose, fueled by memory and united with a team that shares the same unyielding dedication to making a difference in the world of medicine.