‘Ideal M.D./Ph.D. Student’ Has Luck on His Side

Last year, Taylor Schreiber thought his life had reached near-perfect harmony. Under the tutelage of Eckhard R. Podack, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of microbiology and immunology and a luminary in the field, Schreiber was the first graduate of the Miller School’s doctoral program in cancer biology and, while wrapping up his Ph.D., he stumbled on a new method to stimulate a regulatory immune cell, winning a grant to fund a post-doctoral year of study and publish more papers with Podack.

With the prestigious but grueling four-year Ph.D. program behind him, the Bucknell University grad who had managed a lab at Harvard’s Skin Disease Research Center for two years was eager to tackle his final two years of medical school and begin the next phase of life with his wife Nicki, who was completing her OB/GYN residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Then the very disease that Schreiber hopes to have a hand in conquering took hold of his life.

“I had a dry cough for a while and I wasn’t feeling quite like myself,” said Schreiber. “I also knew enough about lymphoma to know that some of the things I was experiencing were worrisome.”

Schreiber went to see one of his Ph.D. advisors and friend, Joseph Rosenblatt, M.D., professor of medicine and chief of the Hematology/Oncology Division, who made the diagnosis on April 1, 2011: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It was the ultimate irony,” Schreiber recalled. “I had recently gotten my Ph.D. in cancer biology, my clinical focus was in hematology/oncology, and I was diagnosed on April Fools’ Day. I knew I was in for a rough time, but the whole confluence of events made me laugh.”

Indeed, it was a trying time for Schreiber, whom Podack describes as the ideal M.D./Ph.D. student – “very motivated and talented for discovery research and, at the same time, interested in translating new discoveries into clinical practice.’’

As Schreiber explains, the ordeal was made tolerable by the care he received at UM. Thanks to “amazing” support from Podack and colleagues, he was able to carry on many of his lab duties, even while undergoing chemotherapy. And at home, family and friends offered “everything imaginable,” solidifying his belief that humanity aids healing.

“I am back to normal now and everything is going well,” said Schreiber, who finished chemotherapy last September, is wrapping up his extended post-doc commitment, and is ready to begin third-year clinical rotations. “This was an incredibly humbling experience for me.”

As difficult as it was, Schreiber knows his experience will make him a better doctor and researcher, even more committed to finding better therapies for cancer, and better ways to help patients navigate the fear that, for a while, consumed his life.

“People ask, ‘Why me?’ But to a certain extent, my wife and I went through the process and came out thinking, ‘Why not me?’” Schreiber said. “I have to think that one day, when I hopefully am a practicing physician and seeing patients, it should give them a lot of comfort to hear me say, ‘Guess what? I went through the same thing you’re going through now.’”

And that’s why, last January, when the Houston-based James Broach Foundation for Brain Cancer Research was establishing its advisory board, a friend recommended Schreiber. He knew Schreiber could speak as both a patient and expert.

“I was honored to be asked,” Schreiber said. “I feel lucky.”

But then, he notes, he’s always felt lucky. “I felt lucky to have been blessed with this career. I felt lucky that I ended up in the lab of a most outstanding mentor. I felt lucky that people took such great care of me. I feel lucky that I can try to give back in any way I can.”

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