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Dec. 1, 2011 Volume 33, No. 14

Health care professor uses cancer diagnosis to teach through personal experience

David Oliver

LEADING THE WAY In August 2010, David Oliver biked 70 miles from Sedalia, Mo., to Jefferson City to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s research. The research professor and deputy director of MU’s Interdisciplinary Center on Aging is approaching his recent diagnosis of stage four nasopharyngeal carcinoma with that same level of determination — and a healthy sense of humor. Find links to his YouTube videos at Photo courtesy of The Alzheimer’s Association


Educator takes a light-hearted approach in YouTube videos

Armed with a small flip camcorder and a wife-turned-personal-videographer, a spirited David Oliver was prepared to virtually announce his big news at the next family and community medicine faculty meeting.

In a three-minute YouTube clip, the research professor of medicine disclosed that he has been diagnosed with stage four nasopharyngeal carcinoma — a cancer just behind the nose that has spread to his lymph nodes and bone marrow. It’s not curable, but treatable, Oliver concedes to his viewers, right before lightening the mood to quip about Jayhawk and Sooner-branded puke buckets that will play a necessary part during his upcoming chemotherapy treatments.

Oliver said his motive for such a public announcement was an effort to avoid what he sees as one of the worst side effects of cancer: Awkwardness.

“When people come up to you, and you have a disease, they are always wondering, ‘Does he know that I know? And he’s bald…’” Oliver jokes.

To take control, he created a video to be played for faculty across campus who are part of the MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging, for which he is the deputy director. Shortly thereafter, one of his children got a hold of the clip and passed it on to a huge list of people on Facebook.

“The idea was to make people feel comfortable around me,” Oliver said. “I had no intention of this being an inspirational video that’s being passed on.”

The video, “David Breaking Bad News,” has more than 1,000 views, and features heartfelt comments that feel like the transcript for an episode of This is Your Life. Oliver said the subsequent responses from friends, family, acquaintances and even perfect strangers have been “overwhelming.”

“David, I never met you, but now I wish I could,” wrote journalism school Associate Professor Charles Davis. “Your video is an inspiration to us all and you are a bright light in the world. Please let me know if I can help in any small way, as the Mizzou family stands ready to help you any way we can!”

Oliver said the video also has engendered more personal and tangible means of support. He has received more than 300 emails and 75 traditional greeting cards, and he has even been promised a medal. A former student reached out to tell Oliver that he would be running the L.A. marathon in his former teacher’s name and planned to donate the finishing medal to him. Oliver, who has run a number of his own marathons, said he was awed by the former student’s generosity.

Oliver has already created sequels to his original YouTube clip: “David’s Haircut” and “Cancer Chemo and Medications.” He makes wisecracks throughout the videos and said the clips have allowed him to make light of a serious situation. He hopes viewers do the same.

“Jokes are everywhere,” he said. “And [people] know that I’m teasable, because they’ve been the butt of my teasing for a long time. What it’s given me is a sense of normalcy.”

Oliver said he plans to continue to chronicle his battle throughout the next several months via YouTube clips and a personal journal. Best case scenario, if the chemo is working, the doctors have given him five years. If not, six to nine months.

“It is what it is,” Oliver said. “I’m ready to accept the results.”

He wants to keep each clip short — around three to five minutes — so that they can eventually be strung together and used to educate health care students across campus in a lighthearted way.

“I want to teach through satire,” Oliver said. “I’m not out to complain about anything.” Oliver said although he has been forced to take a break from much of his volunteer work, he has recently expanded his bucket list, and he jokes about the number of pills he now consumes daily. “All the different sizes, colors, names … it’s pathetic! We [the health care system] make it so confusing.”

But Oliver said more than anything, he wants to use his experiences as an opportunity to teach future physicians about positive bedside manner. He wants students to learn to encourage their patients to deal with bad news in the way that feels the most natural for them, just like his doctor, boss and best friend, Steven Zweig, chair of family and community medicine, did.

Oliver, who has been “accused of being gregarious,” said the public route was just what worked best for him.  As a result of being so open about his diagnosis, Oliver said he has realized just how many people are there for him.

“I’ve discovered I have all these friends, I’ve discovered how much people like me,” he said when describing the flood of support. “If you just drop dead, you’re not going to know that.

“Is it worth it? Maybe!”

Follow Oliver’s journey and watch the videos at

— Megan Cassidy