The Maneater

Cancer survivor and medical student pursues cancer research

Dan Miller: “I am a sort of idealist. I think we need to be thinking about the next generation and thinking about our kids.”

When Dan Miller was 25, he was diagnosed with metastatic papillary thyroid cancer, which spread into his lungs and bones.

“It was like the floor dropped out from the underneath of my feet,” Miller said.

But the disease did not defeat Miller. Instead, it inspired Miller’s interest in cancer research. Eleven years later, Miller is a doctoral candidate in the School of Medicine, devoting himself to cancer research.

“In my experience with cancer, I’ve learned what cancer looks like macroscopically, on a human scale,” Miller said in an email. “Understanding the pathobiology of cancer, and especially in creating new therapies that might treat it, or enhance early cancer detection, has always been my professional motivation, but also a deeply personal one.”

While Miller was doing cancer research, he noticed a serious problem with funding for the cancer research.

“There are too many people applying for too little money,” Miller said. “For me, I saw my mentor constantly writing grants, constantly writing.”

In February, a group of researchers from the American Association for Cancer Research went to Washington to ask more funding for cancer research. Miller was one of them.

He saw the AACR email last winter and decided to apply for the Hill Day opportunity immediately.

“I think it is so critical for the U.S. to continue being a world leader in biomedical research,” Miller said.

Miller’s passion for cancer biology and pathology research derived from not only his own cancer experience, but also his strong interest in evolution and biology.

During his surgeries and radiation treatments, Miller learned a lot about the behavior of cancer cells.

“To me, cancer cells are just incredible, in terms of their ability to adapt to different situations,” Miller said. “Brains are boring to me partially because, in cancer, you can see it in front of you and hold it in your hand … but brains you can only do that after the person is dead.”

When Miller was an undergraduate student at Regis University in Denver, he thought he was going to be a teacher. After volunteering for two years with AmeriCorps and spending a year doing research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Miller decided to focus on cancer research.

“I am a sort of idealist,” Miller said. “I think we need to be thinking about the next generation and thinking about our kids. Because of that, I think I will always be in an academic environment.”

In 2010, the federal budget for cancer research decreased significantly. The funding from federal government goes up and down, and an unstable funding situation affects people who want to take part in cancer research.

“Everyone is really depressed,” Miller said. “Everyone doesn’t go into it anymore. Lots of people who used to want to go into research are choosing careers away from it because funding is so terrible.”

To improve the problem, the AACR group asked lawmakers to increase a little bit more funding in National Institutes of Health each year, about a $2.5 billion increase in 2017 funding.

Miller said it is more important to have more sustainable funding rather than have one huge funding surge.

Now, Miller lives in Columbia with his wife and two young daughters. In June, he will start a position at the Department of Pathology in the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“I will always be at academic and medical institution, and involved in kind of the study of hopefully cure and prevention of cancer,” he said.

Edited by Nancy Coleman | ncoleman@themaneater.com

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