Daddy and the firemen: a cancer love story

Today is World Cancer Day. Everywhere across the globe, people are sharing messages about this fearsome disease and their desire for fresh answers in the face of its mysteries.

As I read their words I'm thinking of my father, David Taysum, who spent his career studying bone cancer at the University of Utah. 

A veteran of World War II, Dad was an unlikely candidate to join any research lab. After his tour of duty in the Pacific, he earned his bachelor's degree on the GI Bill and opened a small business making precision instruments for some of the University's best-known research scientists.

That's how Dad got to know the men and women at the Wing, as it was called -- a temporary structure that housed the U's Radiobiology Laboratory.

Dad didn't have the MD or PhD that most of his research clients had earned. He just knew how to create things that didn't exist until he envisioned and built them.

As my mother explained it, scientists would come to Dad and say, "Taysum, I need some way to measure this substance (or this process or this biological reaction). What do you think?" Working closely with them, he would craft a solution.

When I think about this now, I marvel that Dad never applied for patents on any of these devices. He simply loved solving problems and went on to the next challenge when the current one was finished.

I don't know exactly when the University researchers invited him to join their team. It must have been long before I arrived. But when I was 3, our family went on an exciting trip to San Francisco. Dad's mission was to inspect the U.S.S. Indiana, a decommissioned battleship docked there that he had convinced the University to buy.

The steel in the ship's hull had the right properties for Dad's latest invention: a room with walls several feet thick, equipped with technology that could measure radiation in any living thing. 

This remarkable new tool would enable researchers to chart the radiation given off by a cancer patient before and after treatment, creating a valuable benchmark that could be used to establish treatment protocols.

Dad supervised the dismantling of the battleship, transport of the cobalt-free steel back to the Wing and the construction of the room in partnership with the U's machine shop experts. 

As a kid I often visited the Wing and went inside the small but mighty structure. It stood in one corner of the spare, concrete-floored lab, its exterior skin adorned with large flower-power stickers that always made me smile. 

Dad would carefully open the door, which weighed at least a ton and looked a lot like the portal of a bank vault. Once the door was in motion, he'd challenge me to stop its progress. I'd throw my entire weight against it, marveling that nothing I did would slow its movement one bit. 

That's how Dad shared big ideas with all non-scientists: not by citing theories or statistics, but by tapping everyday phenomena all of us can see and understand. This was the foundation of his fundraising talent, which benefited the Wing and its scientists immensely. 

In those times, researchers studying the cancer-fighting value of radiation were often funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which later became the Department of Energy. 

The AEC's mission was to promote peacetime uses of atomic energy. What greater purpose could our nuclear swords possibly be fashioned into than findings that might someday save millions of lives? 

When the AEC came to visit, Daddy would be absent from our dinner table. Mom would explain that he was dining with "the firemen," which was how she and Dad always referred to the federal VIPs whose grants kept the lab going. 

Dad and his colleagues were focused on the potential of radiation to slow cancer's progress or stop it altogether. They published many significant findings and today, their tissue samples are still in use in the cancer research labs at a major university here in Chicago.

I discovered this during an interview with a scientist who, in thanks for the grant she'd received from the American Cancer Society, had agreed to talk about her work. At the time I was an ACS staff writer working to share the progress we were making, fueled by gifts from supporters all over the world. 

"You really seem to love the subject of research," she said to me at the end of our conversation. I explained a little about Daddy's work. "Wow!" she replied. "I know your father's name. We're still gaining insights from the work he did." 

The idea that Dad's research hadn't died along with him was thrilling. Over the years he had received little credit for his work, perhaps because he didn't have the street cred that came with the advanced degrees his colleagues had.

Or maybe it was his habit of opposing fellow scientists who wanted to publish findings he felt were not yet solid enough to share. It pained him to think that a preliminary result might send another researcher down the wrong path -- or, worse yet, lead to treatments that might harm those whose lives they were intended to save. 

The intense pressures my father and his colleagues felt are still with us; in fact, they've grown more fierce over time. Researchers continue to fight for funds and support, and the mandate to "publish or perish" is always with them.

But Dad's story points to one deep truth: research is a long-term pursuit. Many scientists work their entire lives to establish a single significant finding. 

In a world that clamors for fast answers, it's hard for us to accept that cures can take years, even decades, to arrive. Yet our impatience is justified. As we watch people we love struggle with what has been called the emperor of all maladies, we can't help but cry out for progress.

Researchers feel our pain more deeply than you might think. My father certainly did. More than once, I saw my mother wipe away his tears as he recounted the loss of a cancer patient he knew, someone who had likely become a friend during visits to the Wing's little counting room. 

But Dad knew what every determined cancer scientist knows. Each small insight gained is a living thing that joins with others. Together, they form great bodies of knowledge. The growth of this knowledge over time has created the treatments that oncologists at Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute (and everywhere in the world) now use to save lives. 

Much as I loved and admired Dad, I realize now that he was no saint. He had many personal weaknesses and, without a doubt, he made enemies in his rigid insistence that findings be proven and reproven before publication. He left the University in the early 1970s and never worked in cancer research again. 

Still, I love to think of his soft-spoken way of inspiring the feds whose dollars kept the Wing's work moving forward. Using clear, vivid stories of progress made in the lab, he challenged them to imagine themselves as the creators of a world without cancer. 

Dad is the reason that today, I take real pleasure in working for health charities that, empowered by gifts from good people everywhere, make grants that keep the lights on in cancer labs around the world.

If you're one of those good people -- a donor, a volunteer, a walker, a runner, a survivor sharing your story, or a weary caregiver praying for progress before your loved one's time runs out -- then you're a fireman, too. 

These words are my way of encouraging you to keep fighting. 

Every day a dedicated cancer researcher spends in the lab, and every dollar you give to fund his or her work, expands our body of knowledge. Slowly but surely, your passion and your gifts build the foundation for the next cure. 

I love you, Daddy. I hope you're celebrating the progress we've made. Your contributions, however modest, will always make you a hero to me.