Dreaming of a Cure for Cancer: A Research Scientist's Journey

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Cancer is a scary word. It doesn’t matter your age, the diagnosis or the prognosis, when you hear that six letter word, everything changes. For me, a cancer diagnosis at the age of 13 ultimately changed the trajectory of my life.

For most teenagers, eighth grade is a pivotal time in life. It’s when young adults start realizing their passions and who they want to become. Children begin the process of growing into adults and navigating a new, exciting chapter in life.

For me, this period marked what everyone thought would be my end. I was diagnosed in October of 1980 and was told I wasn’t going to make it until Christmas. My family celebrated in November, just in case, so I could experience one of my favorite holidays one last time.

Surgeries and chemotherapy, pricks and pokes, nurses and doctors became my life. As a minor, decisions about my care were left to my parents and doctors. I was often kept in the dark about the progress of my treatment, and all I could do was sit back and dream of getting better. Fortunately, I successfully fought the cancer and can share my story today.

What I learned from childhood cancer

Going through the experience of being a patient-turned-cancer survivor ignited a scientific curiosity in me. I started to consider how I could ultimately give back and improve the situation for others like me. My new dream was to become a scientist to learn more about how cancer is treated and to hopefully discover new and less toxic ways to help others beat the disease.

The transition back to school wasn’t an easy one. I missed all of eighth grade and half of my freshman year of high school. I was so far behind that teachers didn’t even know if I had the ability or mental capacity to succeed, but I was determined. In college, I made the decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology. Through the support of professors, I regained confidence in my abilities as a student and scientist.

After graduation, I started working at Pfizer in 1993 at the Groton, Connecticut research site. Since joining, I have held various roles in developing important medicines. I’ve seen the work of my team go from an idea in the laboratory all the way to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved treatment that directly impacts the lives of patients and their families.

What I do now

In my current role as a quality operations site lead, I assess medicines for clinical trial use and help ensure that every dose of clinical medicine administered is made to the highest quality and standards. When I was a patient, I wasn’t even aware of clinical trials or what they meant for my treatment plan. Now, people better understand their treatment and want access to potential cures and clinical trials. It’s our job as scientists to deliver on these demands.

As a research scientist, the process is not always easy. It takes years for a drug to go to market and pass through the various stages of FDA approval. It takes many resources — time, money, and perseverance to endure this long journey, but the result is truly worth it.

Working in the industry has allowed me to see a new breast cancer drug go to market and a new antibiotic change the lives of millions around the world.

My experience as a childhood cancer patient sticks with me every day, and it drives my ambition in the lab. I know that thousands of patients are counting on me and my colleagues to come up with the cures that they need. I will never forget that, and we will work tirelessly for them.

As a patient, I dreamed of a cure. As a scientist, I dream of finding a cure, so that the next 13-year-old girl sitting in the hospital is no longer as scared of the six-letter word “cancer.”

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Rosemary Orciari is a quality operations site lead at Pfizer’s Groton, Connecticut location. Her story was highlighted in the Pfizer Dream of Cures commercial, which explores the power of childhood dreams and imagination. She is married with two children, both of whom want to follow in her footsteps as scientists.