Grad Student Perseveres to Earn PhD after Long Battle Against Leukemia

Subha Sarcar lecturing in class

Subha Sarcar MS’10 leads an undergraduate anatomy and physiology class as a teaching assistant. After years of battling health issues, Sarcar is scheduled to earn his PhD next week.

Subha Sarcar MS’10 doesn’t easily give up. Despite a life-threatening cancer diagnosis and expensive, risky treatments, he has overcome those obstacles and is set to earn his PhD from UT Dallas next week.

“I was determined to keep fighting,” he said.

In 2011, one year after Sarcar earned his master’s degree in molecular and cell biology from the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, he began feeling sluggish and noticed a cyst that was not healing properly.

After several doctor’s visits, Sarcar was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow and quickly interferes with the production of blood cells and platelets. The usual treatment for AML is chemotherapy, but it was expensive, and Sarcar’s insurance wouldn’t cover it. Another treatment, a stem cell transplant, also was very expensive.

Since his options appeared to be limited in the U.S., Sarcar traveled to India where he could be with his family and receive treatments at a much lower cost. There, he received chemotherapy, lymphocyte infusion and, ultimately, a stem cell transplant.

In fall 2013, Sarcar returned to UT Dallas, ready to get back to his PhD research and a normal life. But a year and a half later, a checkup in India revealed that he had a relapse.

Sarcar’s doctor said that the only remaining option, a second stem cell transplant, had only a 10 to 15 percent chance of success. Without the transplant, Sarcar’s life expectancy would be only a few months. He and his doctor decided to take the chance.

“He saw the confidence I had and said, ‘OK, we’ll go through it together,’” Sarcar said. “I’m surprised and amazed that he took the risk. Even the doctors in the U.S. were astonished that the surgery occurred.”

Despite the risk, the second stem cell transplant worked. And on the way to his recovery, Sarcar returned to UT Dallas and picked up where he left off.

“When I came back after two years and entered the same door in my lab and met with my professor, he said, ‘I was waiting for you,’” he said.

His advisor, Dr. Dennis Miller, associate professor of biological sciences, said he was thrilled when Sarcar returned to campus for good.

“There were times that I was really worried because his situation was very serious,” he said. “But Subha has overcome a lot and always kept on going. I’m one of his biggest fans.”

There were times that I was really worried because his situation was very serious. But Subha has overcome a lot and always kept on going. I’m one of his biggest fans.

Dr. Dennis Miller, associate professor of biological sciences

As a doctoral student in molecular and cell biology, Sarcar understood the details of his diagnosis and treatment throughout the entire process. That, he said, helped him keep a realistic attitude.

“They were telling me the details, the truth, about every blood test and every step of the treatment — so I could view things from a practical point of view,” he said.

With the detailed information he has, Sarcar remains cautious about his checkups and future health. But he said he chooses to be positive, and attributes the support from his parents, relatives and friends for helping him to stay strong.

Sarcar urged others to invest in those who are in need.

“Always surround yourself with people who truly understand you and motivate you throughout the process,” he said. “Instead of posting on social media, go there and help. Be with the person physically — even for a few minutes, or help them financially — even a contribution of a few dollars matters.”

Sarcar expects to be emotional as he walks across the stage during commencement, thinking of the past and the future.

“I’ll be thinking, ‘I did it, although it took 11 years to finish my PhD, I didn’t give up,’” he said. “Hopefully this will be a lesson to me to never give up in any kind of situation in the future as well.

“I’m here to give back to society, to tell people to not give up even in the worst of situations. It’s possible. You just have to feel it inside and seek help, if needed. Everything is possible if you are determined enough.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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