The Quest for a Cure: Cancer Expert John Marshall ’79 on Battling the Disease in His Work and His Family

Dr. John Marshall ’79 P'11, a renowned oncologist, attended his first funeral when he was in eighth grade. It was a service for his mother, who had died after a long battle with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Marshall shared this story with EHS students during a half-day “Faces of Cancer” event organized as part of the School’s Washington Program. The keynote speaker, he spoke with juniors as well as a host of other interested students. Small breakout sessions followed with speakers who included research experts from Georgetown and the National Institutes of Health as well as families and individuals who have suffered from cancer. Among those: EHS teacher Stacie Galiger, whose husband died in 2015 of a rare bone cancer, and Liza Marshall, a retired lawyer and wife of Dr. Marshall who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006.

In his keynote, Marshall shared his personal experiences with cancer and discussed myths about the disease, the economics of treatment, and his work to advance genetics-driven precision medicine.

When his mother was diagnosed, Marshall accompanied her on many of her visits for radiation and treatments. “I grew up with cancer all around me,” he told the students. After her death, he enrolled at Episcopal, which he said became “my rudder” at a time where his life felt out of control. “This place was my home, and the teachers around me were my parents and my family.”

Years later, after he was well established as a cancer physician at Georgetown University, Liza received her diagnosis of breast cancer. As his wife underwent care, he came to see firsthand the struggles of patients undergoing treatment. “I realized I had no idea what it is like to be on the other side of the white coat,” he said. “It changed me.”

Today, Marshall is leading a global effort to create an alliance of medical centers to develop precision-medicine treatments targeting cancer caused by specific genetic abnormalities. “We have to work together,” he said. “At a time when our world is building walls, they have to come down for medicine and health care,” he said.

After Marshall’s keynote, Liza Marshall met with a smaller group of students and shared with candor and warmth the story of her breast cancer. She detailed her nine months of treatment, which included surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and participation in a clinical trial. She also talked about the effects of her illness on her children, Charlie ’11 and Emma, as well as how it shook her own psychological footing. “So much of cancer or any disease is feeling like you don’t have any control of your life,” she said.

Like a lot of cancer patients, she foolishly tried to blame herself for the disease. “You spend a lot of time questioning yourself and asking: ‘What did I do wrong? I love chocolates; I probably ate too many chocolates.”

The “Faces of Cancer” event was organized by EHS science teacher Kathleen Caslow, a former NIH and George Washington University research scientist. Others speakers for the event included:
  • Dr. Deb Berry P'16 '19, a Georgetown University research professor who oversees a wide variety of cancer research projects;
  • Dr. Victoria Sardi-Brown and Peter Brown, whose son, Mattie, died in 2009 after being diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 6. The Browns have created a foundation to increase childhood cancer awareness, research, and psychosocial support for families;
  • Maureen Colburn, executive director of Just Tryan It, which financially supports families whose children have been diagnosed with cancer; and
  • Matt Collins, a fellow at the National Institutes of Health who’s working on drug development for treating prostate cancer and multiple myeloma.