Ken Scott: Iron Man and cancer researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston
He’s a dad, a husband, a cancer patient. He’s been running the race of his life.
Father’s Day is not the easiest day for some people. But it can be a time to tell Dad stories. Fun ones and sad ones, too. And, of course, Dad stories can work any time of the year. This one is about Ken Scott. This text is dedicated to Ken, Laurel, his wife, and his children Rachel and Nathan.
As a kid, Ken Scott once rode his bike off the roof of his family home. In a later experiment, he attached a model rocket to the bike that melted his seat and his rear caught on fire. Ken grew up to marry his high school sweetheart, raise two kids, become a scientist. He trains hard; he has jogged up to 10 miles at a time wearing a backpack loaded with 100 pounds of logs. He competes in the Iron Man in which participants swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.
Fluffy is one of Ken’s buddies. Ken and his wife Laurel found Fluffy when they spent their anniversary weekend in Texas Hill Country. It was a year after Ken’s diagnosis and they needed time to deepen their love, breathe.
Wherever Ken goes, Fluffy goes. She stands upright, mouth wide open, fangs out, looking fierce. She and Ken are good listeners. People come over to check out Fluffy and stay to chat. She’s a rattlesnake turned into a most hideous walking stick. “If this doesn’t scream ‘screw cancer’, I don’t know what does,” says Ken. “Plus it’s fun to hear the kids wake up in the morning upon finding the cane in their bed!”
Fluffy is with Ken in the waiting room for his many medical appointments. “Before the cane, I spoke with few people,” he says. With Fluffy there, people line up to chat. He wants them to take on Fluffy’s vibe, to find the courage to keep fighting their cancers. Ken takes notes about the stories he hears. Each story starts with a reaction to the cane. “It occurred to me that the cane represents a vessel into their soul,” he says.
When Ken’s tumor was biopsied, he convinced the doctor to give him a snippet of his frozen tumor in a to-go box to take back to his lab. “Great guy,” Ken says of the man who was taken aback: it was a first for a patient to make that request. Ken has set out to scientifically parse his own cancer, figure out which of the genes in his cells has changed and was now stoking his tumor. He succeeded. And he’s using this knowledge to help his doctors plot against this tumor and strategize about treatments.
Ken has devoted his life to understanding cancer. As a scientist, says Ken, he previously missed the personal impact cancer has on its victims. This insight is making his research better. “I was meant to go through this, it has purpose,” he says.
Ken’s treatments include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. In between chemo cycles, he adds endurance training to focus on God, family, friends, his lab. At MD Andersen Cancer Center, Ken’s nickname is ‘superman.’ “I will not let this cancer beat me without a fight,” says Ken. It’s a very personal Iron Man competition.
One of his missions is childhood cancer, bone cancer in particular, which is rare but still too common, says Ken. “No kid should go through what I have experienced,” he says. He wants to sink fangs into their cancer, his cancer, every cancer.
“Cancer shot itself in the foot when it screwed with me. Period.”
A friend’s young daughter has cancer. “I would gladly take his daughter’s disease from her and place it on top of my own a thousand times,” says Ken. His plan is to beat his cancer and to better his research for the benefit of others. “Cancer shot itself in the foot when it screwed with me. Period,” he says.
“My dad is my hero because he was recently diagnosed with cancer but in between treatments, he still finds time to work out and spend time with us. He is an example that I can do and overcome anything. “
Thinking about kids suffering from cancer gets him thinking about his own kids. He might have to leave them before they graduate from high school. “My kids are amazing,” Ken says about Rachel and Nathan. He is shooting videos for their future birthdays. “My plan is to watch these with my grandchildren well into my 90s. But just in case…” He also makes birthday cards for them and for his wife Laurel. Each card is filled front to back with words of love and wisdom and he adds family photos.
He makes other videos, too, with stories about his childhood, about lessons learned along the way. He talks about how proud he is of Laurel and the kids. “I am leaving bits of myself behind and I know they won’t forget me,” he says. The videos lower his fear of leaving them.
In high school, Ken was a jock and Laurel was class valedictorian. He partied, she studied. She was beautiful, says Ken, and intellectually way out of his league. Week after week he would holler across the classroom. “Hey, so are you going to give me your number today?!”
The class would erupt in laughter and Laurel would roll her eyes. She ignored Ken. In hindsight, he admits it was harassment. He kept asking her out. “I guess Laurel saw something in me that convinced her to go on our first date,” says Ken.
“Thank God for algebra.”
He is sad to lose the chance to grow old with her. She will be amazing without him, as will the kids, all because of her and the foundation they have built. He thinks back to his pursuit of Laurel in high school. “Thank God for algebra,” says Ken.
It’s not the possibility of dying over the next two to five years that plagues Ken but the fact that the process of dying will happen in front of his family. But Laurel will rock parenting without him, he says.
The greatest video they have done is based on an idea from a friend at church. The family dresses up. Rachel wears a wedding dress Laurel bought for the occasion. They head to a local wedding reception venue with a spiral staircase and crystal chandelier. Rachel and Ken dance to the song “Butterfly Kisses.” Ken’s clothes conceal a brace on his left leg that helps him stand and turn without crutches. Surgery had removed part of his pelvis.
As they dance, Ken talks to Rachel. He tells her how much he loves her, how proud he is of her and how blessed he feels to have her as his daughter. He will look down on her from Heaven, he will always live in her heart, and will be there whenever she needs to turn to him for strength or guidance. He tells her she will be an amazing wife and mother someday, just as her mother has been Ken’s best friend and soul-mate for over 20 years.
“Of course Rachel and I were in tears at various points of the video, at one point stopping our dance just to embrace,” says Ken. Nathan also filmed with his camera. The finished video will include the different videos spliced together, the music, Ken’s narration taped through the microphone attached to his lapel. “It was an emotional session — not a dry eye in the room as far as I could tell,” he says. He treasured making it and is happy that Rachel can watch it whenever she likes.
Ken is about to start another drug in a clinical trial. It will not be a cure, but it could stabilize his cancer for a while. Then there’s a snag: the clinical trial is put on hold for unclear reasons and he loses his chance at a little more time with his “3-pack.” He has “given this up to God and will rest easy knowing it is in His hands,” he says. “As I said before, I am at complete peace.”
Throughout his cancer journey, Laurel never complained and kept a joyful heart, says Ken. She comforts him and their children. “And now it is Laurel who guides us through my final days on Earth.”
Ken passed away with Laurel by his side. This text is based on Ken’s blog and on conversations with him. He saw a version of this article before his death as did his wife, who also saw this version.