In 1998, Dave Bjork went to the doctor for a high fever accompanied by chills so intense that he shivered even though he wore three jackets. A chest X-ray revealed pneumonia and Dave went back to his life. “I didn’t think anything of it,” he says.
But then Dave had another bout of pneumonia only a few months later, and his new X-ray and his old one had a terrible similarity. “My radiologist held up the two X-rays and showed me that the infection was in the same spot,” he says. Next came a CAT scan and a call from his doctor saying they’d found a tumor in his lung.
“My world stopped,” Dave says. He was 34, didn’t smoke, and had three little boys who were 5, 3, and 1 year old.
But, just as he was lucky that his tumor was exposed by pneumonia, Dave was lucky that it hadn’t spread to his lymph nodes. His surgeon removed the lower lobe of his left lung, leaving him with a big scar and a painful recovery—but no cancer. “They told me ‘you’re free, you’re done,'” he says. “Losing half a lung was a small price to pay.”
Years of follow-up scans confirmed his cancer was gone. But being free wasn’t enough for Dave anymore. “Cancer changed everything,” he says. “I needed to find passion.” Then it hit him. As a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, he’d had access to world-class care and top medical libraries that had the latest research. “I wanted to be the great equalizer and to provide people with access to the same level of information no matter where they live,” he says. “As long as you’re educated, you’ll know you’re getting the right treatment.”
So he decided to leave his job in finance and apply his relationship-building skills to cancer nonprofits. Today, Dave is Vice President of Development for the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), a cancer charity headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.
“We raise money to provide consistent funding for individual scientists, not institutions,” he explains. “These investigators are rock stars, but they’re also real people with pictures of their kids on their desks. That humanizes our fundraising; we can say, ‘This is who you’re supporting, and your money will help them make the next leap forward in cancer research.'”
While his own cancer was resolved long ago, Dave’s commitment to helping others with cancer is renewed continually. Most recently, a good friend, and new member of the NFCR board of directors, went to the hospital for pneumonia and came out with a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Like Dave, his friend was a young nonsmoker. He was also the father of four. But unlike Dave, his cancer was too far along by the time he was diagnosed.
“Nine days before his diagnosis, he came to a board meeting and he looked good,” Dave says. “Four weeks after his diagnosis, he was dead.”
The emotional intensity of fulfilling his passion is draining. “For me, cancer is 24/7 because of my job,” Dave says. “I have to be careful to take breaks.”
Cancer changed more than his career. “I’m a kinder person, and am more patient with my wife, my kids, and everybody,” he says. “I don’t let the little things interfere.” Dave also feels a tremendous sense of gratitude. “Surviving cancer—what could you be more grateful for?” he asks. “But it’s more than that. Cancer has made me appreciate everything.”
Dave and his wife recently celebrated their 25th anniversary in London, and he values his relationships with his sons—who are now young adults—more than he can say.