Upstate News

April 8, 2010
Darryl Geddes 315 464-4828

Upstate opens Colleges Against Cancer chapter

SYRACUSE, N.Y.— When the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life in the Carrier Dome begins Saturday evening, an Upstate Medical University student will be among the walkers in the “survivors’ lap” that starts the 12-hour event.

Chris Woll, a first-year student in Upstate’s College of Medicine, was diagnosed at age 7 with a rare soft-tissue cancer that recurred twice, the second time at age 16. Woll, now 24, is in remission, and—after earning a bachelor’s in Radiation Therapy from Upstate—is working toward his M.D.

Woll, in the above photo at right, stands with with radiation therapy student David Post, who co-chairs Upstate’s Colleges Against Cancer chapter.

“I know I want to work in pediatrics,” Woll said. “I’m very interested in hematology/oncology, but I’m hesitant because I might get too (emotionally) involved. I don’t know if I can compartmentalize, but we’ll see.”

Woll is co-chair of Upstate’s new Colleges Against Cancer chapter, which just received its charter in January from the American Cancer Society. The group’s first project is taking part in the Relay for Life, which raises money to fight cancer.

Woll embraces the “survivor” label.

“The title of survivor is a really cool concept,” he said. “I use it as a motivating kick in the pants when things get tough.”

The summer when he was 7 years old, Woll noticed a lump on his left leg that turned out to be alveolar soft part sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer that often targets children. He had part of the calf muscle removed and underwent chemotherapy. During a checkup a year later, doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his lungs. He underwent chemotherapy again, as well as radiation treatments.

At age 9, he was free of symptoms and was scheduled for annual CAT scans. All was well until he was 16, when tumors reappeared in his right lung, a section of which had to be removed. Since then Chris has been in the clear, including his most recent checkup in January.

All those years, Chris attended the “Double H Ranch” summer camp in Lake Luzerne co-founded by the late actor/philanthropist Paul Newman. For the first nine years, Chris was a camper and spent a week there each summer. When he turned 16, he became a counselor and has spent three months every summer working there with kids with life-threatening illnesses.

The title letters in “Double H Ranch” stand for “Health and Happiness,” which is how Woll signs his e-mails.

“It’s a really incredible experience,” he said of his counselor role at the summer camp. “You see some really cool stuff and some really awful stuff.”

By the time he was in high school, Chris knew he wanted to pursue a career in health care. He was accepted in Upstate’s early admissions program for Radiation Therapy, attended the University of Buffalo for two years and then came to Upstate, where he earned a BS in Radiation Therapy in 2007.

“Chris was one of the most focused students I have had the pleasure of working with,” said Joan O’Brien, chair of the Radiation Therapy department. “He threw himself into his studies with a passion that can only come from surviving a life-threatening disease and realizing how a lifetime is not forever. He wanted A’s and he was willing to put the work in to earn them. His other passion was working with the children at the Double H Ranch. Instead of taking what little vacation time he had and relaxing, he volunteered at the ranch with the children he obviously cared about so much.”

By the time he earned his bachelor’s degree, Chris had medical school—and working in pediatrics—on his radar. After completing his first 50-mile ultramarathon, he worked in radiation therapy and enrolled at the University of Albany for the courses he needed for medical school. He enrolled at Upstate last fall.

Woll has squeezed in several other ultramarathons, and has his sights set on running another at the Grand Canyon in May. He runs in the evenings after studying, and fits in a long training run about once a month. (The Relay For Life is 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and he may run that afternoon and walk as many laps as possible during the relay.)

Doing ultramarathons, Woll admits, has more than a little something to do with being a cancer survivor.

“It’s my way of sticking it to the man,” he said, invoking the mantra of the Jack Black character in the movie “School of Rock.” “It definitely keeps you going.”

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