Five Things I've Learned From a Pioneering Cancer Geneticist

Janet Davison Rowley was a world-renowned human geneticist at the University of Chicago. The first to discover a link between cancer and genetics, she received many top prizes, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, and the Japan Prize. While working part time and raising four sons, she identified subtle changes in the chromosomes of leukemia patients. The discovery of these "translocations" led to a drug called Gleevec -- one of the most successful cancer therapies to date. Scientists now use translocations as roadmaps, with more than 70 identified and linked to different cancers since Janet's discovery in 1972. I was Janet's biographer.

Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago Medicine

Janet Rowley died last month, and I still wake up some mornings hoping it happened in a dream, that I can still call her and invite myself to breakfast, anticipating a hug at the door and a bowl of homemade granola on the table. This is how it had been for the past seven years as I wrote her biography.

We would shuffle to the back of her house, to the solarium, which felt like a greenhouse even in the depths of winter. After catching up on where I was with the manuscript, I would ask about recent news -- government spying, wars in Africa, new cancer research. I wanted Janet's take on this complicated world. As always, the conversation would wind back to her husband, the innovative pathologist and immunologist Donald Rowley, who passed away in February.

With regard to some obstacle tackled in the kitchen or another mystery solved in the lab, she would say, "That's just how he was -- brilliant." Janet always took the seat at the table right below his photos -- two loose leaf computer printouts taped to the wall. "Cheers," we would say.

Janet was brilliant, too. Her CV stretches to nearly 60 pages, and holds so many awards and honorary degrees that even as her biographer I can barely recall all of them. When Donald first brought her from Chicago to Minnesota to meet his parents in 1947, he told his father that Janet had one of the best minds he had ever encountered.

One day before their 65th wedding anniversary and 65 years to the day after graduating medical school, Janet passed away. She left behind hundreds of family members and friends, millions of people affected by her work, and a laboratory still fighting to answer questions she initiated 40 years ago.

I knew Janet through most of my 20s, positioned to ask extremely intimate questions and to witness what life meant to her. Here are five of the many things I've learned, which will stay with me even in her absence:

1). Don't let age define what you accomplish. Janet was undaunted by certain societal expectations. Decisions she made throughout her life came from her core. When Janet applied to medical school in 1943, the school had already filled its quota of three women per class. She waited nine months until the next available opening. Thirty years later, Janet made her first major discovery. Too often, she has lamented, people fault themselves if they haven't accomplished anything major by age 30. While other researchers let their self-perceived failures define them, Janet searched for patterns in chromosomes, leading to a discovery that translated into life-saving cancer treatment. Then, she kept at it. Janet was 50 before the broader scientific community accepted her work.

2). Be an informed participant in the world. Janet was rallying against sequestration's potentially "catastrophic effects" long before I began hearing the buzz word. That diligence came through in her professional life, too. On George W. Bush's Bioethics Council in the early 2000s, Janet reviewed reports on everything from stem cell research to health insurance. But she would turn in her edits days after deadline. The first time it happened, Council Chairman Leon Kass said he was furious. However, he added, "She did her homework. She read everything line-by-line, page-by-page. The reports were made clearly better by her care." So listen to NPR. Read The New York Times over breakfast. Keep the latest periodicals, from Nature to The New Yorker, close at hand. And do your homework.

3). Give the people closest to you enough space to make their own decisions.
This includes yourself. Janet said she always valued time in her garden, where she had many epiphanies. With space away from work, she could let her thoughts wander. Giving loved ones space may be more difficult, because it means letting go of control. At 19, Donnie, Janet's oldest son, moved across the country to Oregon, where he lived in a tree house, removed from society. She worried until she realized the worry might kill her. And what good was that? Janet knew she couldn't do anything except be available when he needed her. She understood fiercely independent spirits, being one herself, and also seemed to believe that she couldn't make someone do something they weren't ready to do.

4). Have a glass of wine with dinner, but then get back to work. You have to find something in life that you feel passionately about -- enough to do it even after a long work day, even when you could zone out on the couch instead. Your passion itself might take immense effort, but doing it will energize you. Especially for people just starting out, Janet said, "You're going to need patience."

5). If you find a partner in life, support that person. But support yourself, too. Janet did this for Donald, whether that meant taking care of their sons while he returned to the lab after dinner, or standing by him later in life when he mass produced a table he had designed, or opening up when he commissioned me to write her biography. However, Donald brought Janet to tears after she discovered the second translocation in leukemia, (she claimed the translocations were driving cancer; he wanted to know what was causing the translocations), but Janet believed in her theory. She pushed herself -- first in the face of Donald's challenge, and then in front of scientists worldwide. The way we think about and treat cancer today would be much different if she hadn't.