Fighting Cancer by Day, Fighting for Cancer Research by Night

By John Quackenbush, PhD

Everyone at Dana-Farber knows me as a scientist. Maybe a little crazy, but dedicated to cracking the code that drives cancer. And everyone who has spent time with me knows that I can talk (seemingly endlessly) about my work. But today I am going to share a different story about an unlikely boxer, ready to give and take punches to raise money for cancer research.

John at the boxing gym.
John Quackenbush, PhD, working out at the boxing gym. Photo credit: Mary Kalamaras

I remember the evening in August when I sat down with my family after dinner to explain what I was thinking about doing and to ask their permission because I knew it would take a lot of my time and demand sacrifices from all of us. My wife’s immediate reaction was, “I’m afraid about what this would mean for you, and I’m worried you might get hurt, but you know I’ll be there to support you if this is something you feel you have to do.” My son, who was then eight and a half, and probably still thought his father was part scientist, part superhero, said, “Do it, Papa! You will be great.” And so that day I started on a journey that nobody who knows me would have ever expected I’d be on.

I have been working at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for nearly ten years, having started on March 14, 2005. My PhD is in theoretical physics, but I transitioned to biology in 1992 and worked on the Human Genome Project. My career eventually led me to cancer research and a faculty appointment at Dana-Farber, where, with my colleagues, I develop methods to take complex genomic data and use it to tease out the unique molecular pathways that are active in cancer, suggesting new and better treatments. I love my work and I see the great promise in what we’re doing. Unfortunately, obtaining research funding is a struggle—one that takes a disproportionate toll on the junior faculty who are the next generation of innovators.

Working at Dana-Farber, I have seen patients struggling with cancer, and I have always admired their courage and determination. My wife, Mary, and I cared for both of her parents as they each battled with colon cancer. Mary’s mother, who was treated in Washington, DC, in 2004 before we moved to Boston, is still doing well. Her father was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 2012 and we were fortunate and grateful for the opportunity to have him treated here—an experience that gave me a unique insight into the quality of care that Dana-Farber and its people provide. It also made me realize how fortunate I was to be a member of the Dana-Farber community. Although my father-in-law passed away this past November, I was incredibly impressed by the quiet determination with which he faced any obstacle the disease presented. I know that his tenacity, and the exceptional and compassionate care that he received, greatly extended his time with us, and giving my son, Adam, a chance to better know his “Papou” (Greek for grandfather).

John Training
Training for the big fight. Photo credit: Mary Kalamaras

For the past year, I have been working out at a boxing gym in Medfield (how I got there is another long story). I have watched, and supported, a number of other people there who chose to participate in an organized boxing charity event called Haymakers for Hope Rock ‘N Rumble held annually in Boston (and now in New York and Los Angeles). One Thursday in August, I headed in for a 6 a.m. boxing class, ready to punch the heavy bag and do some strength and fitness training. I was the only person who showed up that day. Rather than seeing my regular instructor, I was greeted by Sione Tu’ukafe Finau, a talented professional boxer and coach who everyone at the gym knows as “the Boxing Whisperer.” Sione started working out with me, pushing me harder and harder until I thought I was going to drop. And then he pushed me some more, and then even more. An hour later, this genial, quiet, yet imposing figure looked at me and said, “It would be an honor to train you to fight in Haymakers. You have an unbreakable spirit. You don’t quit.” Then he sent me home. After a few days of thinking about the sacrifices training would require of all of us, I applied.

Today I am on my own incredible journey, along with four other brave souls from our gym and a total of thirty novice boxers from around Boston. Beginning New Year’s Day, we were given four months to become boxers—to prepare ourselves to step into the ring on May 14, to face someone else also dedicated to the same cause, and to wage a six-minute battle to raise money for cancer research.

John Training
Photo credit: Mary Kalamaras

During the past two months, I have worked physically harder than I ever have at anything. My body aches in new ways every day. In addition to aches and pains, I’ve experienced black eyes, bloody noses, and weird bruises. My wife is starting to say things like, “John, do you really want to do this?” I dread each day of training more than I dread the fight itself. The training seems endless, but I know that the fight will pass in the blink of an eye. Every time I begin to lose heart, I remember that every dollar I raise will go straight to Dana-Farber to support the next generation of scientists. I remember Papou’s quiet dignity and the courage of every cancer patient I see—the ones who have put their faith in our Dana-Farber family to find more cures and better treatments. This is why I know that I have to fight on.

Although the journey of so many is ongoing, my journey ends May 14, 2015, at the House of Blues. To learn more about this outstanding event and to participate in the fight along with me, please visit this page. The fundraising record for any individual fighter in Haymakers is $75,000. I know that we can eclipse this amount and together raise our gloves in victory. Please consider supporting this effort.