The Race of a Lifetime: A Professor’s Battle with Cancer

February 07, 2013

If you call Assistant Professor Gregory Dawson a cancer survivor, be ready for a correction.

"I absolutely reject that 'cancer survivor' label," he says. "I didn't 'survive' cancer. I kicked its butt. I was not going to let it rule me."

In 2009 Dawson learned that a grim prediction had come true. Seemingly completely well, he checked in for his regular prostate screening and learned that something might not be right. "My PSA was still low but had started to rise rapidly…"

His doctor sent him to a urologist, and after a series of biopsies, the suspicion was confirmed. Dawson had prostate cancer.

Formerly a management consultant, Dawson recently had taken a turn in his life. He had gone back to school and earned a Ph.D. and was embarking on a university career. "I had come to ASU in 2008. I was a brand new assistant professor. I had taken my first steps on the tenure track and was trying to get my research out," he remembers. "I was at an academic conference in San Francisco when the doctor called and said, 'You have cancer.'"

The prediction

The news that he had prostate cancer was not a complete surprise to Dawson. In 1995 his father, David, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 57. The disease had already metastasized at the time of diagnosis, and it took a particularly nasty form -- fast moving and deadly. Fortunately, Dawson still has his Dad, who, at 75, has been a prostate cancer activist throughout his treatment. He is the prostate cancer patient advocate at the National Cancer Institute.

The doctors told Greg and his brother it was highly likely that they too would eventually get prostate cancer, and that it would come on early and aggressively. The sons were told to keep close tabs on their health.

At the time, the news didn’t really hit hard. “I was still in my 30’s and figured that prostate cancer was a disease that old men got,” Dawson said. “Dad was widely seen as an anomaly since he got it young and very aggressive.”

But because he was an anomaly, the doctors wanted to follow Dawson and his brother to see how strong the genetic link was -- particularly with this form of fast-acting and young-hitting cancer."We were told to get screened every six months -- three would be better,' he recalled.

On October 5, 2009, Dawson had a radical prostatectomy at Johns Hopkins. "Because my Dad was active on a board there I had the best surgeon," he said.

Two weeks later he was back teaching class at W. P. Carey.

"It was major surgery -- it wasn't my best teaching performance that day," he said. Known for his wide smile and enthusiasm, Dawson found that he tired easily standing up, so he had to teach sitting down.

During recovery he learned just how close he came to a different and sad outcome. "If I had let my checkups slide even 12 months it likely would have metastasized."

Returning to the lectern took a certain kind of toughness, which is the other half of Dawson's story.

A lifetime running

Rewind the clock once more. We're back in high school, and a 16 year-old Dawson was a competitive swimmer. When he got to James Madison University in 1979 as an undergraduate he wasn't fast enough to make the team, so he took up water polo. During a game an opposing player landed on him just right and broke his wrist in three places. Unable to get in the water, he started running to keep in shape. After six months the wrist was healed, but he found that he liked running better than swimming.

Ever since then he's run five or six times a week. In the early 1990s he went to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers and in 1996 he got involved in corporate sports. "They needed a Master's runner and swimmer," he said. Chagrined, he learned that anyone over 35 fell into the Master's category, but while in the Washington D.C. office he was the fastest male over 35 in both swimming and running. The team went to the national finals three times.

"I'd look across the starting line and see a bunch of former Olympians," he laughed. After he was promoted to Partner and moved to California, he continued to run. He also competed in triathlons -- calling on that old love of swimming.

If you were in the crowd at the P.F. Chang's half marathon a few weeks ago you might have seen him run by. "I love to run. I'm not bad at it, and it's a great stress reducer," he said.

Outrunning cancer

Dawson said that as he recovered from the surgery he realized how much the disease had affected how he felt. But as he got well he felt his energy returning, and three or four weeks out he started back to running. "Building back was very hard," he said, especially considering he had not missed a five consecutive days of running since 1977.

Then he felt a surge of energy. "I was feeling great, so on January 1, 2010 I started running for real again," he said.

That's when he made three promises to himself: 1) he would run a marathon every year, assuring that he'd stay fit; 2) he would run a 10K race faster than his age; and 3) he'd do one really stupid thing.

He’s kept those promises about running. In the last 3 months he’s run a 5k race at 21 minutes 30 seconds (21:30), a 10k at 44:19, a half marathon at 1 hour 38 minutes and a marathon 3 hours 52 minutes.

“In the past year, I’ve dropped 1:20 off my 5k, 2:07 off my 10k, 8:05 off my half marathon and 10 minutes off my marathon,” he said. “I’m nowhere close to my personal records from the 1990’s but I’m getting close to my age graded equivalents -- lots of tables compare your race times at ‘prime’ versus current race times to come up with an age-graded equivalent.”

In 2012, he picked the Tough Mudder as his "stupid thing." Billed as "probably the toughest event on the planet" and designed by British Special Forces, the race includes 26 rugged, muddy obstacles -- the last one a curtain of live electrical wires. Dawson said he ran through the wires with arms outstretched, and the shock when one of the wires touched his elbow then his cheek was among the most painful things he has ever felt. In 2011 he went sky diving, which in comparison almost sounds tame!

When he first learned he had cancer, Dawson felt like his body had betrayed him. In the days before the surgery he ran hard through his anger, "trying to outrun it."

"My cholesterol was low, I had low body fat, and I exercised every day. The ink was still damp on my Ph.D.," he said. But after one day of "feeling sorry for myself" he started to fight. That's why the "cancer survivor" label sets him off. "I will not let cancer define me for the rest of my life."

Going to class

At first Dawson kept the cancer experience to himself, but these days he sometimes shares it with students. “I say to students, appreciate what you have: you have fathers my age," he said.

Faculty advisor to the undergraduate DISC club and honors thesis advisor as well as a researcher and undergraduate and MBA instructor, Dawson's great joy is helping students.

"I made this decision before I had cancer," he said. "I was a partner at PWC. Life was good -- all the material trappings. But if I can help students be successful -- that's gratifying."

"At 21 they all think they're invincible," he added. "I tell them to figure out what you're good at and what you like -- and do that."

With spirit and energy -- like a lifelong runner.