Joseph Roscoe likes to fix things. Perhaps that helps explains why, after surviving Hodgkin's Disease, the carpenter used the illness as a catalyst to return to school and learn how to fix other cancer patients
Roscoe is now a 58-year-old assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where he studies the sleep patterns of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. He wants to learn more about chronic fatigue in order to help people who suffer from it.
It is a topic he knows well, although Roscoe says he still has much to discover.
His relationship with cancer began in 1978, when he noticed a bump -- or more accurately, a lymph node -- in his armpit about the size of a walnut.
It was stage III Hodgkin's Disease. After 90 radiation treatments over eight months, the cancer went into remission, but around 1982, a trouble spot turned up on Roscoe's X-rays. It was something in his lungs, but the doctors weren't sure what, and getting a tissue sample would be complicated and risky. The medicine Prednisone seemed to be helping keep his lungs in working order, so doctors decided to monitor him without doing surgery.
But in 1989, when Roscoe was 36, surgeons decided to go in. They diagnosed him with stage IV Hodgkin's Disease. Roscoe was told that his chances of surviving were less than 50/50, but curiously, he wasn't worried.
"I knew two things -- that I would get enormously sick from the chemotherapy, but I was also absolutely convinced that I would survive it," Roscoe says.
From those two beliefs, he says, he began thinking it would be helpful to study the connection between what cancer patients expect and the outcomes of their cases. But first, he would have to earn his bachelor's degree attending night school, attend graduate school and earn his doctorate.
He also had to survive. His wife, Laura Volk, remembers Roscoe during 12 rounds of chemo as little more than a walking skeleton. But the Hodgkin's finally responded to treatment, Roscoe's health and energy improved, and he kept taking college courses, earning his bachelor's degree in 1992. Two years later, he was accepted into the University of Rochester's graduate program.
Roscoe gave up his remodeling business but taught plumbing and an electronics course at a local learning center for the next three years while he worked on a master's degree. At 47, right about the time his mother died of colon cancer, Roscoe received his Ph.D. in social psychology. He has worked at the University of Rochester ever since on numerous projects for the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Army, among other organizations.
Roscoe's experience is unusual, says Dr. Sidney Sobel, one of Roscoe's oncologists and a long-time supporter. Sobel has never had a patient become a cancer researcher, but he says that he has seen his cancer patients go into health-related fields. He recalls one patient who became "a crackerjack RN, another who became a nurse's aide, and another who became a hospital administrator." He adds that in Roscoe's case, carpentry to cancer researcher may not be as far of a leap as one might think.
"It takes a lot of knowledge," Sobel says of both professions, "and this guy has it."
He also has a penchant for not giving up.
"If we could have, we would have paid anything to avoid it, but Joe has led a pretty amazing life," his wife says. "I almost think the best thing that can happen to someone is to really think you're going to die -- and then live."
Roscoe says that he enjoyed his carpentry career but doesn't miss it. "The real truth is, if you do anything for 20 years, you've done it enough," he says.
"I used to remodel a lot of bathrooms, and I really didn't need to do more of those. I also knew that the radiation had done some damage to me. I have reduced lung capacity and some affiliated medical problems and I thought 'I don't want to be a carpenter on a roof when I'm sixty, but I'd love to be in an office, extending my career another twenty years and working on something that I love.'"
SecondAct contributor Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist based in Ohio, and the author of several books, including C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America.