As you watch 27-year-old Josh Romero in his college lab conducting research on DNA repair, you’d never know that at 19, he almost flunked out of school. He might share with you his recent prostate cancer discovery or his path to become an oncologist and translational cancer researcher, but you probably wouldn’t realize that it was his own fight with testicular cancer, a job at Walmart and his new family that elevated him to that lab — and into the medical field.
Ever since a grade school lesson on the sun, Romero knew he enjoyed science. Then later, a high school advanced placement calculus class proved that he also excelled in math. But Romero was (and still is) a very personable person, and during his earlier years, his social life took precedence over his studies. It was a trend that continued as he attended his hometown University of Northern Colorado following high school. And by his sophomore year, his grades were suffering.
“I simply was not ready to take on higher education,” Romero said. “And I would have failed out of college if it were not for my diagnosis of advanced testicular cancer.”
At 19 years old, Romero had testicular cancer that had metastasized to his lymph nodes and lung. Seven months before he was diagnosed by a urologist at UCHealth in Greeley, Romero noticed a lump on his testicle, but the lump didn’t bother him, so he ignored it. It wasn’t until he experienced lower back pain so severe he couldn’t lie down that he finally sought medical attention.
Testicular cancer most commonly affects men ages 20 to 35, but with a timely diagnosis, it is usually very treatable because it responds well to chemotherapy, said Dr. Paul Maroni, a surgeon at UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital and associate professor at University of Colorado School of Medicine. But the cancer also likes to spread and at a high rate, he added. Romero’s back pain was a result of his cancer spreading.
Romero underwent his first surgery hours after his diagnosis. Then he started chemotherapy, spending eight hours a day for five days straight having chemotherapy drugs pumped into his bloodstream. He then rested for two weeks. This cycle repeated three more times.
Romero had never known anyone who had fought cancer before, and he was not prepared for the pain, nausea and other reactions he would have to the treatment. As he stands in the lab where he works, it is clear the experience has remained vivid in his memory and probably always will.
After chemotherapy, Romero was referred to Anschutz Cancer Center and to Maroni, who would remove residual mass left over from the tumors that had spread. This included making an 18-inch incision down the middle of Romero’s chest and removing a portion of his lung. Including recovery time, Romero had spent about a year battling his cancer.
“I had no desire to return to school,” he said. “I just wanted to be a normal kid again.”
He got a job at a grocery store and transferred to its warehouse. He started dating his now wife, Vanessa, and they had their first daughter. It was then that he started to wonder where he was going with his life — and that’s when his high school calculus class graced his thoughts again.
“I didn’t know where I was headed or what I wanted, but I knew I was selling myself short,” Romero said. “That math class was always at the back of my mind. I knew I could do more but was choosing not to.”
He started taking firefighting classes at Aims Community College in Greeley. He thought that firefighters have a nice schedule, and friends and family members who chose firefighting as a career steered him toward an emergency medical technician course. It was there that he started down a medical career path. He had finally realized he was ready to accept the responsibility it would take to get a higher education, he said. He left his full time $20-per-hour job at the warehouse and started working part time in environmental services at Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland. He continued with school and became a certified nursing assistant, moving to the nurses float pool at MCR.
“I started realizing my talents and interest were in research and medicine,” he said.
The education and experience led him to his current job, conducting DNA repair (or what he calls, spontaneous homologous recombination) research on the fourth-floor lab of Colorado State University’s Molecular and Radiological Biosciences building as a senior in biochemistry.
In spring 2017, Romero will graduate and hopes to pursue a combined M.D./Ph.D. through the University of Colorado School of Medicine so he can be an oncologist and conduct translational cancer research. Translational medical research is where the researcher aims to translate lab findings into their medical practice and create meaningful health outcomes. Romero even sees himself working for UCHealth one day.
“I like that UCHealth is person-driven,” he said. “They help people, not just treat illness and call it good. And with their research and innovation, they are really trying to change the landscape of medicine. That’s where I want to be — up there.”
Romero has already made some impacts in the research field, according to Dr. E. David Crawford, urologic oncologist at UCH, and the head of Urologic Oncology at CU School of Medicine and who worked with Romero during a summer 2016 internship.
“I am very proud of the research of this future medical student,” Crawford said. “This is Nobel Prize material: a urine test to detect significant prostate cancer based on the mapping biopsies and targeted therapy we do. Josh is so motivated, dedicated and intelligent, way beyond his level of education and age. Clearly his experience with cancer had an impact and in a very positive way.”
“I literally owe my life to medicine,” Romero said. “Others’ work and their fine-tuning saved my life. There is no better way to spend my life than helping others.”