Prof. Jim Proctor Finds Hope after Diagnosis

In the fall of 2017, Professor and Director of Environmental Studies Jim Proctor was diagnosed with smoldering multiple myeloma, a precursor to an incurable form of cancer known as multiple myeloma. The news came as a surprise since his family does not have a history of cancer, and Proctor leads a healthy lifestyle. The disease has not had many physical impacts yet, but it still is a very serious diagnosis.

“I’m grateful that it was caught very early,” Proctor said. “It was simply a primary care physician who noticed I have a little anemia and I shouldn’t. It’s actually easy to detect myeloma, but you never look for it, because it’s relatively rare.”

Proctor spent months researching cures and traveling to cancer clinics across the country. He learned last summer that he had progressed into the active stages of myeloma. Despite the scary news, Proctor is optimistic about the shifts this will bring about in his life.

“Recently I was reflecting, and my life seems to kind of go in 12 to 13 year cycles,” Proctor said. “So I knew something was probably gonna come … it’s always good for people to change up every once in a while.”

Still, he recognizes the reality of the situation.

“All of that said, it is a serious, serious diagnosis,” Proctor said. “It did give me a chance to rethink, what do I value in my life? … What do I wanna make of this life that I have left? It’s a terrible question to wanna ask yourself, but truly none of us know what our future is.”

With this major life event, Proctor said he felt inspired to bring the things that really matter to him back into his life, like music and environmental writing. Since coming to Lewis & Clark 13 years ago, duties as a professor have taken up most of his time.

“I’ve had a wealth of experiences working with students, going to conferences, observing environmentalism, trying to make sense of it … but I put all my book production on hold,” Proctor said. “I haven’t initiated a book since I came here and I realize that that was a loss, that I really wanted to use this opportunity to create something.”

After doing some research into treatments, Proctor decided to do a clinical trial which he believes is using techniques that will become mainstream within a few years. This will include a stem cell transplant, which will leave him with the immune system of a newborn baby. For a few months, he won’t even be able to go outside. But in Proctor’s view, that is valuable time he can spend working. This semester, he isn’t teaching any classes since he will be out of commission after the treatment.

Proctor is now working on proposals for two books. One is an exploration of how to think about the environment, known as ecoliteracy, and another is about an online survey called “Ecotypes” that he initiated to measure students’ values and ideologies regarding the environment.

Madeline “Match” Kay ’20 is helping Jim with research for his book on ecoliteracy, which she said connects a lot with her studies as an ENVS/SOAN double major. This opportunity to be a research assistant came by surprise one day during office hours. When she heard about Proctor’s book ideas, Kay offered to help if needed while Proctor was in treatment. She never expected to be doing this as an independent study credit.

“I want to help him in any way I can,” Kay said. “If that could get my name written in a book that would be even better.”

Kay said she spends about four hours a week going through scholarly work related to ecoliteracy on top the demands of double majoring and a full time job. It is a lot of work to manage, but she said it is worth it.

“I basically do a lot of intensive Watzek research, which I think will be more useful when he can’t be here,” she said.

Nico Farrell ’19 is helping Proctor with some data analysis for his Ecotypes book, which he said builds upon certain aspects of his ENVS major. Like Kay, his work is structured as an independent study.

“Jim was already aware of my interest in analyzing the public opinion aspect of environmental studies, and he was already aware of my literacy with digital tools,” Farrell said.  “And he also knew that I like to do things that are very useful to others, so this was a great way of both going out and doing this research that helps inform my knowledge of the field and of at the same time furthering his ability to find interesting conclusions.”

Proctor has a very positive attitude toward this whole situation, despite the fact that he will be quarantined from approximately April to July.

“I’ll have my better times, and I’ll just be sitting around with my laptop,” Proctor said.

Proctor has faith in the progressive treatment plan he has chosen, and with some good luck, he will be back in the classroom next fall.

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