Life Lessons From 34 Years of Fighting Cancer: Tyler Jacks (Transcript)

Tyler Jacks at TEDxCambridge

Following is the full text of MIT biology professor Tyler Jacks’ talk titled “Life Lessons From 34 Years of Fighting Cancer” at TEDxCambridge conference.

Tyler Jacks – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Have you ever been in a hedge maze?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, these are mazes made of tall hedges, so tall you can’t see over them. Inside, the paths twist and turn; there’s lots of dead ends and false starts and blind alleys.

The goal of the maze is to get to the center, where there’s a prize waiting for you.

Imagine some wondrous hidden treasure. With the really big ones, you can get stuck inside for hours, but you know that there’s got to be a way in. If you keep on trying, you’ll get to that treasure.

I sometimes think that I live in a hedge maze. My days are filled with twists and turns and dead ends and blind alleys. I almost find myself right back where I started, having gone in circles for a while.

I know there’s something really important at the end of my journey. But I sometimes question whether I’ll ever get there, and yet I keep on trying.

You see, I’m in the midst of a 34-year battle with cancer. No, it’s not what you’re thinking — I’m not a cancer survivor, but I’ve been studying the disease for more than half my life.

I think about cancer every day. And having been in this particular maze for so long, I’ve learned a few things about how to stick with it when the answer always seems one step away.

Today, I direct the Koch Institute at MIT, directly across the street from where we’re speaking. And in this role, I support the work of hundreds of cancer scientists and cancer-oriented engineers who are working across disciplines trying to develop novel situations to the long-standing problems of cancer.

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Each day we make progress, and each day we experience failure. Some experiments provide brilliant new insights; most experiments provide nothing. It’s a classic case of two steps forward, one step back.

But when you’re trying to do something for the first time — and that’s what all good science is — there are no turn-by-turn directions. One discovery enables the next experiment.

Ultimately, the results hang together, and the landscape begins to look more familiar. Little by little, we make progress. Little by little, we unlock the mysteries of cancer. It’s a painstaking process, incredibly rewarding on some days, infuriating on others.

I’m guessing you’ve had these days in your life pursuits as well. I’m not the only one in this room who’s been stuck in a maze.

So, why do we keep going? Why do we press on?

As a cancer researcher, I’d suggest there are three important factors.

The first is passion. A passion to do something bigger than yourself — for your family, for your community or maybe even for humanity.

The second is history… history guiding us to the best path forward.

And the third is progress, making progress towards your goal, knowing that you’re going to get there, maybe not today, but someday.

For the cancer researcher, there’s actually a confluence of passions. On the one hand, every cancer researcher I know is driven to develop a world without cancer.

In academic labs and government labs and industry labs, individuals who have chosen this profession want to do their part, even if it’s a small part, to address a major human health problem. And we can all agree that cancer is that.

Human beings have been developing cancer for as long as there have been human beings. It’s an inevitable risk of multicellular organisms like us who live a long time.

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