To Stephanie and John Cacioppo, both behavioral neuroscience faculty at the University of Chicago, giving back is far more than the act of philanthropy. It is at the heart of their extensive research on perceived social isolation and social connection, which finds that giving back and contributing to one’s community, rather than just receiving from others, makes life more meaningful.

With implications for patients and the elderly alike, their research on loneliness and perceived social isolation is drawing the attention of public health entities such as the U.S. Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That said, giving is personal for the Cacioppos. John is a cancer survivor, and both he and Stephanie are passionate about helping to fund head and neck cancer research at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Two years ago, the world-renowned professor and scientist—and a co-founder of the field of social neuroscience—was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive head and neck cancer. When he first felt symptoms in his cheek, he went to their primary care physician and neighborhood hospital. But when he received a diagnosis of Stage IV cancer, he returned home to UChicago and sought care from University of Chicago Medicine renowned cancer expert Everett Vokes, MD, a pioneer in developing “combination” therapy for treating head and neck cancer. 

As part of Vokes’s innovative approach, John underwent surgery followed by seven, 14-day treatment cycles of targeted chemotherapy and radiation. He also underwent a year of monoclonal antibody chemotherapy, an immunotherapy, which harness the body’s own defenses to fight cancer.

John and Stephanie were inseparable throughout the high-intensity treatment and strived to maintain their usual routine. John was even able to speak from his hospital room to attendees of a national conference. He is deeply grateful to UChicago surgeon Elizabeth Blair, MD, whose deft skills to remove his facial tumor helped him avoid long-term facial paralysis, which commonly results from this type of surgery.

John was fully recovered and symptom-free when in late 2016 he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. Again, under Dr. Vokes’s supervision, he was treated, fully eradicated of cancer, and returned to normal life.

Going forward, the Cacioppos say that after observing John’s fellow cancer patients during treatment, they are working to alleviate loneliness in patients through their research—she through pharmacology and he through better understanding the genetics of loneliness. “We will meet in the middle to work together on interventions,” John says.

For now, they plan to continue giving to UChicago. “It is because of Dr. Vokes and his team, the research at the University of Chicago and the clinical expertise that dovetails with that, that I’m alive,” says John.

“As far as I’m concerned, we owe them everything,” he adds. “The expectation is that by supporting them, they will be better able to help future patients. The research may lead to treatments that are more effective or less deleterious either in their administration or in their side effects and consequences.” 

To other cancer patients, John says: “Have hope and participate actively in the battle against cancer. It’s easy to give into cancer because the treatments are pretty egregious sometimes. Work with the health care team, go through all the treatments, no matter how difficult that might be, and support others who are less fortunate.”

To cancer donors, he and Stephanie say they will forever be grateful to UChicago Medicine. Cancer patients are increasingly winning the battle thanks to advances in cancer research and treatments supported through the generous contributions of donors.