Cancer Conference Raises Awareness, Funds

Student organizers of PC’s Cancer Conference and Big Climb Philly Kickoff turned out a crowd to listen to informative presentations from eminent oncologists, heartfelt recollections from cancer survivors, and some tips about climbing Philadelphia’s tallest tower.

“This is the era when cancer can be cured, and your generation can cure it,” Penn Medicine neurosurgeon Donald O’Rourke told students gathered in the Kurtz Center for the Saturday symposium.

O’Rourke said medical science has made progress in treating cancer and extending survival rates. But, he said, “our field needs a new generation of young minds, and I challenge you to think about what you can do to cure cancer. The air is filled with possibilities.”

Lynn M. Schuchter, chief of Penn Medicine’s division of Hematology Oncology, provided a fascinating overview of the disease and some new cancer therapies, some of which have replaced chemotherapy and radiation. Although the new pharmaceuticals have side effects, she said, they are more benign than chemo and radiation.

PC ninth grader Duncan Glew, who brought the idea for the Big Climb to Philadelphia when he moved here for treatment of t-cell leukemia, spoke from personal experience about the destructiveness of some current medicine.

“I stand before you today as a voice for all those who didn’t make it,” Duncan said. But he acknowledged that it has come at a price. A steroid used in his treatment has left his knees so brittle that he can no longer run or surf, as he once did.

In addition to Duncan, the conference featured personal stories from three other individuals who have battled cancer.

Jules Rauch OPC ’56 explained with emotion and candor what it was like to be diagnosed with melanoma in 2010 and given only months to live. Rauch became a patient of Schuchter’s and beat the odds. “Now I tell people I am 73 – plus the five years she gave me.” Rauch’s cancer was caused by exposure to the sun; he recounted how he grew up at the beach, traveled to the Caribbean, fished off the Florida coast. He gave students a straightforward message: protect your skin from the sun with sunscreen, sunblocking fabrics, hats, etc.

Timothy Lynch, PC science teacher, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a common and deadly form of brain cancer, when he was in his first year of graduate school. Lynch explained how an post-operative infection may have fired up his immune system in a way that fought back the cancer, which has a median survival rate of two years. He spoke with excitement about his recent sabbatical and continuing collaboration with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who are working to find a cure for glioblastoma.

Derek Fitzgerald beat two life-threatening diseases. In 2003, when he was 30, Fitzgerald was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; he immediately underwent several rounds of chemotherapy. The treatment destroyed the cancer – but he soon learned that it had destroyed his heart. Fitzgerald received a heart transplant in 2011. Once discharged, he worked aggressively to regain his strength. The audience was amazed by his dramatic story: he set up a home gym, began to run, and eight months post-transplant completed his first 5K. Then a half-marathon, a full marathon, a half Ironman and in 2013 a full Ironman – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in 17 hours or less.

Comcast’s Frank Purcell attended as a representative of the company and cancer survivor. He had the additional credential of being the younger brother of Erin Purcell Hughes, chair of PC’s English department.

Like Fitzgerald and Duncan, Purcell came to rely for information and support on the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), organizers of the Big Climb Philly event.

“Comcast Corporation is proud to host this event and we thank Duncan for bringing this inspiration to us,” Purcell said. “We look forward to blowing the roof off!”

The day was intended to generate more signups for the Big Climb, and almost 60 new climbers registered – for free! The registration fee is $35 but Rauch covered the cost for climbers who registered on the day of the conference.

The Big Climb Philly goal is to raise $250,000 to support cancer research.

“Philanthropy funds vital research,” Schuchter said. “What you’re doing here matters.”

As they work to promote Big Climb Philly, the next steps for Duncan and his crew of student activists are Super Bowl-inspired Jersey Day, a promotion for their $15 Big Climb fundraising t-shirts, a bake sale and a student/teacher basketball game.

For more info on the Big Climb and to register, visit

Above: PC's Big Climb Philly Team is growing!

Top: Physicians Lynn Schuchter and Donald O'Rourke; cancer survivors Derek Fitzgerald and Jules Rauch; PC ninth grader and Big Climb inspiration Duncan Glew; PC science teacher and cancer survivor Timothy Lynch; Head of School Darryl J. Ford.