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Doctor battled cancer on many fronts

You would have understood if James Mezhir wanted to run as far from cancer as he could after all he went through in high school.

The 18-hour surgery. Hospital stays and painful chemotherapy. Missed track meets at Grand Island High.

When the day finally came that tests showed his young body was rid of cancer, he did anything but flee the disease. He ran head on into the fight.

James Mezhir, the patient, became Dr. James Mezhir, the cancer surgeon. He spent the rest of his life working to give other patients a better life.

After years of training to become a surgical oncologist – first at the University at Buffalo Medical School and later at the University of Chicago Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York – he specialized in the very surgery that helped save his life as a teenager.

Always in search of new ways to help patients, Dr. Mezhir published prolifically. Colleagues credited his research with “novel discoveries in the biology of pancreatic and gastric cancer.”

He was also the rare doctor who had been through the raw emotions and brutal treatment of cancer. At 15, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “He knew how it felt to have that oncologist walk into that room,” said his mother, Virginia Nanula. “He knew what it’s like to have that surgery.”

Cancer came for Mezhir again, this time at 40. By then, he was married with two daughters and working as a surgeon, professor and researcher at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. Colleagues say he was dedicated to family, faith and his work.

You can see that in the tributes left for him after his death, at 42, on Feb. 3. Patients talk about the miracles he performed. Doctors talked about his surgical work. A family friend remembered a sweet and kind boy.

“May all of us take the example James set and use it in our own lives to never give up, to do our best, and to make a positive difference in the lives of others,” one man wrote.

When he couldn’t do surgery anymore, Dr. Mezhir continued his research.

He met with med students and residents. He was determined to inspire young doctors and to provide for his family, said Dr. James Howe, director of surgical oncology and endocrine surgery at the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

“It’s hard to know how we would deal with the situation James had,” Howe said. “What he did was just show an immense spirit and determination and strength despite feeling poorly.”

After everything, Dr. Mezhir still approached life with a smile.

“I find something good every single day,” he said in a 2012 video. “That’s just my personality.”

He described becoming a med student after being a cancer patient as “one of the most incredible life experiences imaginable.”

“Among other things,” Dr. Mezhir wrote while at UB Medical School, “it seems to finally lend meaning to what happened to me as a teenager.”

There’s a big difference, he wrote, between “reading in a journal about survival rates for a disease and having to face the statistic yourself.”

Few know how we would face that statistic once, let alone twice. Some get angry and sad. Others find new joy in living, renewed faith. Many find purpose. Dr. Mezhir found a crusade that should inspire us all.