In 2007, Jim Semonik knew he needed a colonoscopy. His father had died from colon cancer four years earlier, and now, as a 31-year-old, he had lost his appetite, he was having several bowel movements each day, and blood appeared in his stool.
Semonik’s fear was validated when, following a colonoscopy, he was diagnosed with stage IIB colorectal cancer. Only 11 percent of colon cancer patients are younger than 50.
David Medich, associate professor of surgery and chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, started Semonik on chemotherapy and radiation treatment in mid-2008.
From the age of 23, Semonik had worked as a DJ and promoter of industrial music, a mix of electronica, rock, and punk. He brought CDs to the long radiation sessions, and he’d listen to industrial music bands, like 16 Volt, Chemlab, and KMFDM.
“It was a dark kind of music,” Semonik says.
Semonik credits the aggressive music and the treatment he received from Medich’s team with his ability to overcome the disease. One afternoon, while receiving radiation treatment and tuning in to his favorite genre, he decided to use one to help the other.
“I’m on borrowed time already, so I may as well do my best with it,” says Semonik. “I started contacting everyone I knew. Every record label that I had worked with, every band that I had worked with, whether it be local, international.”
Semonik’s idea: create a compilation album of industrial music featuring artists from around the world. The proceeds would go to cancer research. But before he could start producing albums, Semonik needed to beat cancer.
In September 2008, Medich removed Semonik’s two tumors, along with his gallbladder and 18 inches of his large intestine.
“I had to relearn how to walk, had to retrain my digestive system, had to wear an ileostomy bag,” says Semonik.
Following a bout with pancreatitis and a reversed ileostomy, Semonik got started on the project. With 83 bands lending their music, he released Electronic Saviors: Volume 1 in 2010. The album raised more than $20,000 for various organizations, supporting people with cancer amd cancer research. He decided to make additional volumes, and in 2016, after the release of Volume 4, he donated $5,000 to Medich and his research team. This year, following the release of Volume 5, Semonik donated another $7,500 to Medich. The money will be used to study different methods of chemo-radiation that free patients of the need for surgery.
“When I tell you I wouldn’t have made it without music, I can tell you the same about him,” says Semonik of Medich.
Semonik’s compilation albums have raised more than $70,000 for cancer-related charities in eight years, and he remains cancer free.
In November, four Pitt professors with positions at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center were each awarded a portion of a $1 million grant from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). The funding is part of the foundation’s record-breaking $63 million donation, which was split among 300 of the world’s top scientists and is intended to span the entire spectrum of cancer research, from basic cell biology to developing new treatments.
Wendie Berg, an MD/PhD professor of radiology, Leisha Emens, an MD/PhD professor of hematology/oncology, and Steffi Oesterreich and Adrian Lee, each a PhD professor of pharmacology and chemical biology, were among the scientists chosen across six continents to receive the BCRF grants.
“It’s exciting,” says Berg, who specializes in breast imaging at UPMC Magee-Womens. “A lot of years of life are lost, and treatments have improved but are still fundamentally limited by the stage of detection.” She notes that doctors want to catch breast cancer early on “and not cause harm in the process by doing extra procedures that are unnecessary.”
Emens, who is coleader of the Hillman Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program, praised the BCRF for the grant. “They allow a lot of flexibility for investigators to explore areas that more traditional grants don’t necessarily support,” she says. “Having [BCRF’s] support gives us all a foundation to move our research forward and make rapid progress.” –Kate Benz