Voices of the NIH Community

“The best place to have the worst things happen”

Elizabeth Flanagan and Sheryl Zwerski, close friends and co-workers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), talk about how Elizabeth’s life has changed since being diagnosed with a terminal case of colon cancer. Elizabeth reflects on working at NIH while dying, and how her work with HIV/AIDS patients gave her perspective on her mortality.


Elizabeth Flanagan: A year ago I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.  I have no family history of cancer; this is the bolt from the blue.  And working with people living with HIV has prepared me to face my own terminal illness.  I’ve been able to skip the “why me?” phase.  The scientific part of me says cells divided wrong; it happened.

Sheryl Zwerski: I have been totally amazed that you have skipped the “why me?” part.  I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I find it incredibly strong and amazing that you’ve been able to do that.

I guess one of the questions I want to ask: what do you find helpful for people to say, ask, do, not do?  What really helped you both initially and maybe since then?

Elizabeth Flanagan: I think so much of the cancer narrative is around being a survivor, that you are going to take on this challenge, fight this battle and be a survivor, and that is not applicable to me.  My illness is terminal, so I want there to be another narrative, my own, that talks about living life to the fullest.  I find it helpful when people meet me where I am.  I am an open book; I’m comfortable talking about my illness and when I talk about my plans for end-of-life care, I want people to hear me and not pretend like it’s not going to happen.  That is helpful to me.

Sheryl Zwerski: I have lots of admiration for that and we think about you not as “Elizabeth is ill so she can’t be helpful to us anymore.”  No, we continue to think about all the things that we need you to do for us that you’re so good at doing.  And that says so much about who you are and how you’ve faced all this.

Elizabeth Flanagan: Even in the most unfortunate situation, I am still very fortunate.  I am able to come to work.  I am able to use my mind and my talents.  In other situations, in other jobs, I would be pushed out the door on long-term disability and this allows me to continue working as long as it’s good for me.

It’s been the best place to have the worst things happen.

This page last reviewed on February 27, 2023