The founders of the Paleo-oncology Research Organization (PRO) first met through variations of shared field work experiences, friendly institutional competition, travel experiences, and shared hotel rooms while attending academic conferences. The latter became an integral part of the journey toward the launch of PRO.
Kathryn Hunt, Roselyn Campbell, Casey Kirkpatrick and Jennifer Willoughby all became fast friends and respected colleagues, due in large part to their shared passion for archaeology, Egyptology, and paleopathology. In an academic field where knowledge and project ideas are often fiercely guarded prior to publication, they did not hesitate to share ideas, suggest collaborations and offer each other academic guidance when needed. They found strength, inspiration and motivation within each other and this support has been integral to both group and individual success.
It was an unexpected turn of events that led to the conception of PRO. In 2009, Kathryn Hunt, an otherwise healthy 22 year old, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She continued to attend university while fiercely battling her cancer through surgery and chemotherapy. Even through the loss of her beloved aunt to a rare form of cancer during the same time period, Hunt maintained her determination and eventually won her fight with cancer. As a geographically diverse group of friends, Campbell, Kirkpatrick and Willoughby did what they could from afar to support Hunt during her battle and were tremendously relieved when Hunt was able to attend the ARCE, PPA and AAPA conferences, later that year. She hadn’t even had her chemotherapy port removed, yet was filled with ideas for bioarchaeological cancer research! What’s more, she went right back to work at the Valley of the Kings in Egypt just two months after completing chemo!! Talk about a tough cookie!
It was later revealed that while navigating her university campus, bald and limping from her life-saving procedures, Hunt had begun to question the popular perceptions and social stigmas that ancient Egyptian cancer victims may have had to endure. These questions led Hunt to search for ancient medical literature and bioarchaeological case studies of cancer in the past. This search only fueled the flame, leading to further questions regarding the history and impact of cancer throughout the world and the methods used by bioarchaeologists to recognize cancer victims. It became clear that there was a wealth of information on cancer in antiquity that had never been synthesized or observed systematically as a collection. It also became apparent that the methods for differential diagnosis or identification of cancer in human remains were varied and lacked standardization. Hunt decided that the amount of research required to make significant progress within this field was beyond anything one person could conquer, so she approached Campbell, Kirkpatrick and Willoughby with her idea for co-founding an open-access, multi-disciplinary organization devoted to the research of cancer in antiquity. As with most individuals, all of their lives had been touched by cancer in one way or another and they immediately recognized the potential for contribution to cancer research through the study of human remains. It was settled, and the planning of what eventually became known as the Paleo-oncology Research Organization (PRO) began!
Shortly after this time, Kirkpatrick’s mother was diagnosed with an atypical meningioma, a benign brain tumor with the potential for development into malignancy. This experience resulted in the revelation that there was a very thin line between benign and malignant tumours, both in the development of neoplastic disease and the symptoms resulting from each type of tumour. The line between malignant and benign tumors can also be blurred when identifying tumors in ancient human remains. As a result, it was decided that the PRO would focus on both malignant and benign neoplastic disease. The first official meeting of PRO happened over lunch in Knoxville, Tennessee while attending a conference on physical anthropology. On a paper napkin, the organization was named, its objectives outlined, and a plan for action was created, and PRO has since been working hard towards carrying out their goals for open access, education, and collaboration in paleo-oncological research.