Voices of the NIH Community

“How much longer do I have?”

Professor Bill Dorland was 38 when he was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare cancer of the spine. Dr. Dorland participated in an NIH clinical trial and at the time of this recording was in ongoing partial response to treatment.

Ten years after his diagnosis, he and his NIH oncologist, Dr. Chris Heery, talk about the question that cancer patients often ask, “How much longer do I have?”


Bill Dorland: He gave me a list of 10 things – it could be this, this, this and this — and of course, you look ’em up. So I looked them up and the tenth one was, oh man, if it’s that, horrible. That’s…no way, I don’t want that and of course, when I got the diagnosis and it was that one I was, like, pretty scared, very scared. 

But at least it’s not a car crash, right? People who are in those kinds of circumstances, where in an instant everything changes in your whole life, I’ve never had to face that. It’s been a slow, rather horrible, but nevertheless slow process.

Chris Heery: That’s actually a question that oncologists get a lot…

Bill Dorland: Hm. Which one?

Chris Heery: …like how much longer do I have?

Bill Dorland: Oh, yeah. I’ve asked that to all my doctors except you; never bothered you with that one.

Chris Heery: Well ‘cause my answer’s usually well, it depends on how careful you are crossing the road.

Bill Dorland: Yeah, exactly.

Chris Heery: Right?

Bill Dorland: Yeah.

Chris Heery: Because there are so many things we can’t control, not the least of which just living day to day, so my answer is always, well I can give you some ranges of numbers when you put that across hundreds or thousands of people, but for you, there’s no way I can know that answer.

Bill Dorland: Right.

Chris Heery: But it’s amazing, people often want to know the answer to that question, but I think what they’re really trying to get at is, how much should I abandon all the other crap in my life?

Bill Dorland: Well that’s it. How do I reprioritize and do I need to get it all done in the next month or the year or what? 

Chris Heery: Right. Exactly. And it’s an interesting thing because I think people are looking for an excuse to just get away from doing all the stuff that they know is just getting in the way of their life.

Bill Dorland: Absolutely. I came into this thing having worked on projects in physics that have a 50 year time horizon and I said it’s not right to look for a cure. It’s not right because we only have, who knows how many years, but 5 years, and we should work on quality of life. And I was dead wrong, because…I was so wrong…

Chris Heery: I hope so.

Bill Dorland: …yeah, the right thing to do is look for a cure and what’s happening with me right now is absolutely fabulous. 

Chris Heery: Yeah.

Bill Dorland: I had many recurrent chordomas, one after the other and ended up here at NIH on my third trial having no other options and really here to test the medicine for others.

This page last reviewed on February 27, 2023