Researcher And Patient: Dr. Deming Knows Cancer from Both Views

In the medical profession, a key aspect of building rapport with patients is empathy. Physicians strive to understand patients’ challenges and fears, hear their concerns, and help them navigate their treatment options and questions, no matter how complex or overwhelming.

For Dr. Dustin Deming, a medical oncologist and V Foundation grant recipient who specializes in colorectal cancer, the patient experience resonates in a deeply personal way. He has walked the same cancer journey.

In 2012, Deming was at a turning point in his life and career. He had just received a faculty position with his own laboratory at the University of Wisconsin where he’d be leading research on colorectal cancer. He and his wife had also just welcomed their second child, a daughter, and they were learning to balance life with an infant and a 3-year-old son.

Throughout this period of transition, Deming began experiencing discomfort that he first attributed to stress, but eventually worsened into overwhelming pelvic pain. Upon undergoing a colonoscopy, he was diagnosed at just 31 years old with the very same disease he’d spent his career studying – colorectal cancer.

“As soon as I was diagnosed, I knew how I wanted to react because I had thought about it tons of times from my clinical work with patients,“ said Deming. “What I learned from my patients who also went through this is that those who picked themselves up, stayed positive, and kept doing what they needed to do – they ended up being the rock for themselves and their families. They are the ones who did well.”

Deming used his new role and growing family as motivation and pushed through a lengthy treatment plan involving multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. During this time, he continued to work in the lab and see patients, where he found he was able to connect in a way he never had before.

“When I was first seeing patients, it was all about the science. We’d talk about the stage of the cancer and the treatments. But I now know it’s also important to ask: how are you sleeping at night? What does it mean for your job? How will you interact with your family members?” he explained.

Deming also found that his personal experience added a new sense of urgency to his work as a researcher and the incredible impact research funding can have on patient outcomes. “I learned how much research offers hope to patients and how powerful that hope is,” he said. “If you’re struggling, the hope of what might be coming through research makes you feel better about where the future might be.”

Deming credits the V Scholar Grant he received in 2015 as a valuable part of jumpstarting his career and laboratory. “As part of my V Foundation grant, we started building models of colorectal cancer that have become the foundation of all the work that I do now,” he explained. “It initially started some therapeutic investigations that we, to this day, have built upon.”

As patients have grappled with difficult decisions relating to their diagnosis and treatment, Deming has been able to show them that life exists on the other side of a cancer diagnosis. Deming has even experienced the devastating news of a recurrence, which was discovered more than eight years after his first surgery, a situation that occurs in less than 1% of patients after they hit the 5-year cancer-free milestone.

Deming underwent another six months of intensive chemotherapy, radiation and surgery in January 2022 to remove all evidence of the cancer. Through his experience, he saw the advancements in both radiation and surgical techniques that had improved since he began his journey in 2012.

Through all his experiences, personal and professional, Deming believes that victory over cancer looks different for every individual. For some, it’s waking up the next day in less pain. For others, it’s hitting a landmark event like a child’s wedding. For himself, having this diagnosis at such a young age has allowed him to better understand and improve the patient experience for decades to come in his career.

“I have a much greater appreciation for what patients go through. I don’t wish this diagnosis on anybody, but having been through it, I feel like I can help people in a different way.”

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