Story by Ryan Hart
When Dr. Kurt Weiss was fifteen years old, he swam and played football as an honors student in his freshman year at North Hills High School in the Pittsburgh area. He had always wanted to go to Notre Dame like his sister, and become an engineer like his dad. That was the plan.
Then that spring he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his tibia (shin bone). Of course, at the time it was seen as such a huge burden, thinking of all the school he would have to miss.
Coming came across his story shocked me—I followed a similar tract with an Osteosarcoma diagnosis that was seen at first as a huge inconvenience, then heading to M.D. Anderson after diagnosis. It is an honor to write about how Dr. Weiss has turned the pain of cancer into the purpose of his life’s work.
The cancer had spread to his lungs, and he had surgery to remove them both. The common medical consensus is that metastasis to the lung is not a good nosological sign. Then when it returned, that was even more treacherous. Those cells proved resistant to treatment.
He was put on a clinical trial at M.D. Anderson called MTP-PE, described as “immunotherapy before immunotherapy was cool.” It’s an almost crude immunotherapy—the drug charges up the immune system function in the lungs and then attracts cancer cells to spread to the lung.
He described it as feeling like having the flu, which is not unusual for an immunotherapy with fevers, headaches and chills. But the main risk was that it would not work, with no toxic side effects like conventional chemo. In the clinical trial he was randomized to the group that got MTP-PE for 6 months. That ended up being the group that did the best. “Dumb luck,” he says.
Going into this, Kurt had always really wanted play football in high school. After his diagnosis, that was no longer a possibility, so he turned to the tenor saxophone, and deepened those friendships through band.
Turns out, his Make-a-Wish request was to get a new saxophone and to play it with the Notre Dame Marching band. He absolutely did; when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish played the Colorado Buffaloes on January 1 1990 at the Orange Bowl, Kurt was right there playing along with them. Then he returned to that very field during college on January 1st 1996 as a member of that band!
The love and support of his community really lifted him up through these experiences. So this illness revealed to him his loving cast of thousands. He also learned he’s tougher than he thought. So now when he faces challenges he asks, “How bad could it be? Will I lose my hair? Will I throw up all over the place? Am I going to lose any limbs? Probably not.” Before cancer, Dr. Weiss says: “I was overconfident and cocky. Cancer brings a healthy dose of humility.”
At the end of the day, there is always the collateral damage there to remind him. Every morning, he has to put on his leg. Sometimes it hurts, and sometimes it doesn’t. He had fought in infection in his leg for seven years until having it amputated. Before that he was going in for surgery about three to four times a year. This was a heavy inconvenience while trying to live the college life, so he made the decision to go for amputation. His dream to go to Notre Dame persisted, and that is where he ended up going, and his life’s work is inspired by living through cancer.
His experiences changed his life because he learned that cancer research saves life. He is living proof. Dr. Weiss knows this every day when he wakes up. After his schooling he became a surgeon scientist. What this means is that he is an orthopedic oncology surgeon and also runs a lab that researches metastatic potential. Through his illness, Dr. Weiss found his life’s work. He described his passion for cancer research saying, “Well I’ve always been a ‘metastasis guy’. None of my patients die because of a tumor in their arm or leg. They ALL die because of metastases. This has been understudied because it’s really, really hard. If I have made one contribution in science, I hope it’s that I am making people think more about this deadly aspect of cancer.”
His interested in how cancer cells spread, what machinery sources that agency, the conditions needed for that to happen. Weiss’ surgical work is therapeutic for him, getting to take out the monstrous masses. As for the cancer research, he feels it humbling because it has so much reach. He is serving an enormous range of people, maybe saving the life of a little boy he’ll never meet.
When interacting with patients, Dr. Kurt Weiss practices a little different than other physicians. Having been there, in those difficult conversations that come with the job, he can show more empathy: “Parents just need to see that one person who had this disease, and survived. I can’t promise that they’ll survive too, but I can be that one person.”