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The good fight

June 21, 2010
By Paul Miller

Who could imagine that a self-proclaimed dog doctor would help diagnose your lymphoma - while you're sitting around a campfire in the Rockies?

Long, tough fight

Joe Sottnik, a postdoctoral fellow currently doing research at the Animal Cancer Center, was diagnosed with lymphoma in the summer of 2001.

That’s just one reason why Joe Sottnik is alive and well. Sottnik, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Clinical Sciences, is pretty happy doing research at the Animal Cancer Center, but he’s had a long, tough fight to get where he is.

Sottnik was a healthy teen in high school when he began volunteering as a counselor at week-long summer camps for kids with cancer. He’d seen enough tragedy from cancer to convince him to volunteer – his aunt had died from breast cancer, and his friend’s mother was undergoing treatment for leukemia.

Mass just above the heart

But life changed when cancer began creeping into his own body. “I was preliminarily diagnosed with lymphoma in the summer of 2001,” Sottnik says. “I had some swelling in my legs, and X-rays showed a mass just above my heart. The biopsies seemed to be negative, but they also found I had kidney disease, which had to be treated first. That went on for almost two years.”

While undergoing treatments, Sottnik happened to meet Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, associate professor of surgical oncology at the Animal Cancer Center.

“Joe and I met when we were volunteers at a summer camp for kids,” she says. “We took a teen group on a backpacking trip, and we were sitting around the campfire one evening when he told me about the mass in his chest. He was on medication that, at least in dogs, I know can confound the diagnosis of lymphoma and make biopsies look negative.

“I said to him, ‘Joe, I’m just a doggie doc, but I’m concerned you really might have lymphoma.’”

Dog doctor correctly diagnosed disease

Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, associate professor of surgical oncology at the Animal Cancer Center, happened to meet Sottnik at a summer camp for kids.

So on a beautiful summer night in Roosevelt National Forest, at a camp for kids with cancer, a dog doctor correctly diagnosed Sottnik’s disease.

Now what? Sottnik’s mother asked another doctor, “Who do we talk to? We don’t know anything about cancer.” A friend recommended contacting a certain Dr. Steve Withrow, CSU’s renowned animal cancer expert, but Sottnik’s mother was flabbergasted at the suggestion. “What would an animal doctor know about cancer in my son?” she asked.

Plenty, as they found out. Calls and referrals were made – Withrow’s Rolodex is about the size of a phone book – and Sottnik soon began aggressive treatment.

Chemo a tough haul

“Joe wanted to take a more intense chemotherapy protocol that he knew would make him sicker but that would shorten his treatment time,” Ehrhart says.

“It was a pretty tough haul,” Sottnik says. “Five months of something else I’d rather be doing, like going to school.”

In remission for more than six years

Not only did Sottnik beat cancer – he’s been in remission for more than six years – but he was one of the first graduate students to complete a new program in cancer biology in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“My teachers and colleagues supported me and helped me beat cancer,” Sottnik says, naming Steve Dow and Doug Thamm, his graduate advisers in the Department of Clinical Sciences, among others. “That’s the kind of dedication you find from faculty, staff, and students at CSU.”

One of first graduates of new program in cancer biology

“Joe has such an indomitable spirit and good sense of humor,” Thamm says. “He makes it fun to come to work.” “I was impressed with Joe’s courage and willingness to fight as hard as he could for a cure and his perseverance with school,” Ehrhart says.

“His journey helps me keep perspective, continue the good fight, and never lose hope.”

Determined to find cure for bone tumors in dogs

Sottnik is determined to find a cure for bone tumors in dogs, a type of cancer also common in children. “I think it’s incredibly interesting research and unique to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital,” he says.

Such translational research – finding treatments for animal disease that also can be applied to humans – is a noble goal, but Sottnik would still like to keep sitting around campfires as a volunteer counselor at summer camps. After all, you never know when you’ll meet somebody who’s good at saving lives.