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Coral Reefs Can Save Lives

At the age of 20, Don Tait was diagnosed with testicular cancer and his life changed dramatically. Now a fourth-year medical student, Don talks to his sister-in-law about his treatment, his decision to go to medical school and why more people should know where their medicines come from.

"I think that we’d be better served — as doctors, med students and as a community of people — to know that this is where drugs come from."

Margaret:

When did you find out you had cancer?

Don:

I was studying abroad in Spain in 2003. I did a self-examination and alarm bells went off in my head. I went to the library and researched different symptoms I was having: being tired, lower back soreness and an enlarged testicle, and it came back saying testicular cancer. I went to the local ER, then went to an urologist in Barcelona, and they told me to immediately go home. I flew home on April 11, had surgery a few days later and started chemo on April 16.

Margaret:

What was the treatment like?

Don:

I had grade 2 disease, which means that it had spread beyond the local site, I had some enlarged lymph nodes in my pelvic region. They took out the tumor and the testicle and then I had four rounds of chemotherapy. The chemo was three different drugs: cisplatin, bleomycin and etoposide. All four cycles lasted a little more than three months. It was a little scary because you don’t know how your body is going to react. But it was good that I was really in shape and I was young. But it takes a toll on you.

Margaret:

How did the experience of having cancer change you?

Don:

Everyone deals with it differently. When you have it yourself you have these preconceived notion of how it’s going to change your life. Everyone always says that when they got done with treatment they lived every single day to the fullest, and I kind of expected that I would do that. But, it’s interesting because it’s hard to truly live that way because it kind of erases the idea of having future plans; it makes everything seem so short-sighted. So I try to make the most out of every day, but it’s easy to slip back into the way you were before.

I think it’s been a good experience – if I had to go back and do it again, I would. It teaches you things. It teaches you not to get so bent out of shape about the little things.

Margaret:

Did having cancer influence your decision to become a doctor?

Don:

Yeah, it did. Before I had cancer I always thought that doctors were crazy, because you basically have to give up your 20s. The thing that led me toward it was the interaction I had with my own oncologist, and the interactions I had with everyone at the hospital. It opens your eyes to a side of humanity that many people don’t often get to see. I started envisioning myself from his perspective as the doctor, and the satisfaction that I would feel. If I hadn’t had cancer, I would not be in medical school right now.

Margaret:

What did you learn in medical school about medications being derived from nature?

Don:

There was very little mention to the origin of drugs, and specifically when it comes to drugs from coral reefs. I knew that the majority of the drugs that we have come from plants and animals. But I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t know. I think that we’d be better served — as doctors, med students and as a community of people — to know that this is where drugs come from. People would say: “Hey wait a minute — if the majority of the medicines we use come from nature, and yet we’re destroying nature, then we’re not only destroying nature which is bad on its own, but it’s also harmful for us.” If people need another reason to think about why harming nature is bad, this should be one of them.

Margaret:

We’ve talked about how coral reefs provide the foundation for many medications, including ARA-C, which is considered the backbone of chemotherapy for treating acute myeloid leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia and some lymphomas, that is extracted from a Caribbean sea sponge and Yondelis, which is used in Europe to treat soft-tissue sarcoma and is undergoing clinical trials in the United States, that is extracted from Ecteinascidia turbinata (popularly referred to as sea squirt).

Does knowing now that so many medications come from corals affect the way you think about our ocean environment?

Don:

I already believe that people should behave as conservationists, but of course it makes me think about it differently. I think it’s important that first we learn about the marine environment just on its own merit, but also to think about the ways that people can benefit from its existence. I think it’s something that needs to be talked about and I don’t think we do it enough.


Margaret Southern is a Senior Writer for The Nature Conservancy.

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