From his early days, David Fajgenbaum, MD, was an overachiever in academics and sports, funneling his relentless drive and laser-like focus into everything he did. He dreamed of becoming a quarterback at a division I school, which he achieved, garnering a full scholarship to Georgetown University, where his exploits in football earned him the nickname “The Beast.”
However, the first tragedy of his life had lasting effects. Dr. Fajgenbaum writes: “When I set out to be a doctor, I had already born witness to incurable disease and inconsolable sadness—my mother had died of brain cancer when I was in college—but I was still optimistic about the power of science and medicine to find answers and cures…. Her death had inspired me to go into medicine; I had dreamed of helping patients like her and taking revenge on her disease.”
Title:Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope Into Action
Authors: David Fajgenbaum, MD
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date:September 2019
Price: $26.95, hardcover, 256 pages
In Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope Into Action, the section where Dr. Fajgenbaum tells of his mother’s diagnosis of grade 4 glioblastoma and the psychological trauma it visited on his close-knit family is well done, especially the part when his mother’s symptoms, such as memory loss, become overwhelming. In three tightly written pages, readers get an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the shattering diagnosis of glioblastoma.
Symptoms Arise, Cause Concern
The author spends a bit too much time on his own backstory before giving what readers signed on for when they bought the book: his medical battle. However, some of the detail is important in forming the personality that will later be confronted with a life-altering disease. For instance, he confesses to being “technically disabled” by a childhood diagnosis of the hyperfocus variant of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which he explains actually helped him work for hours or sit and watch football game footage on his opposing team long after his teammates had lost interest.
Dr. Fajgenbaum brings an interesting background to the story: he grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the son of parents who immigrated to the United States from Trinidad so his father could go to college, eventually becoming a successful orthopedic surgeon. The complicated father-son relationship is well drawn, giving the reader a feel for the author’s inner workings.
Determined to become an oncologist, Dr. Fajgenbaum throws himself headlong into his medical education at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania. However, 6 months into his medical school rotations, he suddenly had a loss of energy, something totally foreign to a young man who operated in high drive.
“I was beyond happy to have a few days at home as my sister had announced she was pregnant, but all I could think about was going to sleep. I’d never felt so exhausted in my life, and I didn’t know why.” After several days of bone-crushing fatigue, Dr. Fajgenbaum knew something was wrong, which was confirmed when he discovered enlarged lymph nodes in his groin. Four days later, before his end-of-rotation exam, he woke up in drenched sheets with red bumps covering his arms and chest.
When Dr. Fajgenbaum’s symptoms progressed, he was hospitalized; his team of doctors thought he might have had lymphoma, infections, an autoimmune disease, or some obscure illness. For reasons never explained, a lymph node biopsy was not done. A battery of tests followed: a liver biopsy, bone marrow biopsies, PET scans, and renal arteriograms; however, none of these tests revealed his underlying disease.
“My mother died of brain cancer when I was in college, but I was still optimistic about the power of science and medicine to find answers and cures….”— David Fajgenbaum, MD
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The author spent 4 weeks at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, during which his condition deteriorated to the point where his friends came to say their goodbyes. The reader gets a blow-by-blow analysis of the agonizing hospital stays, including a frantic move by his father to have his son airlifted to a hospital in Raleigh near where he worked. To alleviate the brutal symptoms of his cryptic illness, Dr. Fajgenbaum was started on high-dose steroids.
After 7 weeks of inpatient stays between two hospitals, he was eventually stabilized and discharged home—still without a definitive diagnosis. The medical mystery that unfolds is gripping, and it’s here the book’s pace kicks into high gear.
His Fight for Life Continues
His doctors finally diagnosed Dr. Fajgenbaum with Castleman disease, a rare malady with an undefined and possibly fatal prognosis. Instead of falling apart in self-pity, Dr. Fajgenbaum, who’d been near death five times, began dedicating his medical career to investigating the disease. His research and selfless work with others who suffered from Castleman disease taught him valuable lessons about the interaction of science, medicine, and the human experience. His battle is told in personal and highly spirited prose, giving the reader something to root for on every page. While fighting for his life, he marries his sweetheart, Caitlan, and they have a daughter, Amelia.
As the book ends, Dr. Fajgenbaum’s brave journey and struggle continue. “I know I’m not totally in the clear. My disease can come back at any moment. At the same time I’m getting further from my last relapse, I’m likely to get closer to my next recurrence…. I won’t have any regrets; I will have fought with everything I’ve got.” This medical saga, which speaks to the resilience of the human spirit, is highly recommended.