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OPINION

A Nobel love story

As he walked into his lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, filled with cheering staffers and supporters, Bill Kaelin’s thoughts weren’t on the molecular biology of cancer.

William G. Kaelin Jr. will be awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine on Tuesday. Kaelin, who teaches at Harvard, will share the prize with Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.
William G. Kaelin Jr. will be awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine on Tuesday. Kaelin, who teaches at Harvard, will share the prize with Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Lying in bed, Bill Kaelin saw it was 6:00 a.m., well past the time the Nobel Prize Committee makes its calls to winners. He thought: Oh well, I guess I didn’t get it. No big deal.

The phone rang. He looked at the clock. It was 4:40 a.m. He wondered. Was I dreaming then or am I dreaming now?

Sometime later, as he walked into his lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, filled with cheering staffers and supporters, his thoughts weren’t on the molecular biology of cancer. They were instead about love. Love lost. Love found.

Bill was a resident at Johns Hopkins when he spotted Carolyn Scerbo at the faculty pool and thought to himself: That’s the woman I’m going to marry. He did, and they ended up in Boston. He started working as a researcher in the lab of David Livingston at Dana-Farber. Her career was meteoric. A surgeon, at just age 34 she was named founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Living, as they did, in Boston’s Back Bay, raising two children, and pursuing work each found deeply meaningful, life seemed idyllic.

And then — the irony lost on no one — in 2003 Carolyn diagnosed herself with breast cancer. It was a shock, but “deep down both of us thought she was going to be a survivor,” Bill says. “And she did survive.” The chemotherapy had an unexpected side effect, however: It numbed Carolyn’s hands, leaving her unable to continue as a surgeon. “She didn’t wallow in self-pity,” Bill recalls. “She just decided to direct her energies elsewhere.” She threw herself into becoming a patient advocate, writing two books to help others who found themselves in her situation: “Living Through Breast Cancer" and “The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Fitness Plan.”

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“We got to a pretty good life after breast cancer,” Bill says.

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But then, in 2010, came a second diagnosis: Carolyn had brain cancer — glioblastoma multiforme, the same cancer that killed Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain.

Bill got into cancer research, he says, because “I saw too many people suffer.” But “until it happens to a loved one, until you feel it in your soul, you don't fully understand how this disease affects you, turning your world upside down.”

“My entire family had to grow up. Having gone through the scare in 2003 helped us in 2010. We had more coping skills, greater resilience.” Carolyn had the first of two brain surgeries and had to teach herself how to walk again. “I knew and she knew that the textbook prognosis was dismal, but we took comfort that she was at a great place getting state-of-the-art therapy.” They took comfort as well in simple routine: having a care plan and executing it faithfully.

Then too, Bill acknowledges, part of coping was simple denial. "We’d say her case was ‘exceptional,' that she’s younger, she’s had more extensive DNA testing,” he said He remembers them talking about the someday-movie of her life, documenting her hoped-for recovery. “She was going to be played by Julia Roberts.” And him? “Pee-wee Herman,” he offers up with a laugh.

Meanwhile, his own work in cancer research proceeded apace. “The lab became a place to retreat and to recharge.” The ordeal with cancer, he says, “can be very depressing, but you don’t have any choice. You do the best you can.”

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In 2014, there was a relapse and a second surgery. Carolyn died in 2015.

Bill threw himself into work and into remembering. And then one day, about two years after Carolyn’s death, he asked someone out on a date. He had a personal epiphany: “I realized it was the first time in years that I allowed myself to look forward in time rather than backward in time.”

Perhaps, he thinks, dwelling on the past was a way to avoid Carolyn’s death. “There was this irrational sense that if you kept looking backward, maybe you haven’t lost this person.”

Still, he thought he would never be able to love again. “The analogy I use,” he says, “is that when I had my second child, I could not imagine that I could love someone as much as my first. But of course, love is not a zero-sum game.”

As he spoke in his lab after being awarded the Nobel, Bill said, “You know, my number one prize in life was my beloved Carolyn, who was my partner and best friend in life.” But he also spoke about the future. I’ve learned, he said, “that maybe I can smile again and laugh again and maybe even find love again.”

I think many of us have this image of Nobel laureates as uber-humans, far different from the rest of us, brainiacs unaffected by the vicissitudes of normal human life. Hardly. Nobel Prize laureates or not, we all live much the same lives: supporting our families; doing our bit to contribute to the world; loving, laughing, and crying through the years.

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Kaelin formally receives the Nobel Prize on Tuesday.

Tom Keane is a Boston-based freelance writer. He tweets at @tomkeaneboston.