In July 2014, four days before he was scheduled to relocate from his hometown of Plainview, New York to Miami to attend his first year of medical school, Joshua Novy found out he had cancer. He was twenty-six years old. His car was packed.
Novy, a gregarious sports fan, die-hard car enthusiast and full-on foodie, is often described by friends as a “teddy bear” -- endlessly outgoing, creative, confident, thoughtful, and enthusiastic. Still, Novy was no stranger to adversity. His older brother, David, had been born with severe cerebral palsy. From the time he was a child, Novy had watched his mother devote herself tirelessly to his brother’s care. Then at sixteen, he’d lost his father, who’d been on a waiting list for a heart and lung transplant, to cardiac failure. “Becoming a doctor became a way to fill the void left by my father because it wasn’t like he died of a rare illness,” Novy says. “He died of cardiovascular disease -- the leading cause of death in the United States.”
Inspired by his father, Novy steadily pursued a future in healthcare. After his second year at Nassau community college, he transferred to Cornell and obtained a Master’s in Physiology at New York Medical College before receiving his hard-won acceptance into the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami. A school which, as a part of its matriculation process, required vaccination screenings.
That summer, Novy took the vaccination request as an opportunity to see his doctor for a full physical exam. Blood tests during that exam showed signs indicating that he might’ve contracted, of all things, syphilis, although he was advised that further testing would likely reveal that result as a false positive, replacing it with an autoimmune disorder such as lupus. Given his unflagging medical curiosity and the knowledge he’d gained during his master’s program, Novy got ahold of the lab reports himself. When he saw his white blood count numbers, he demanded to see an oncologist. Based on his age and other contextual factors, his doctor insisted that lupus made more sense.
At the time, his mother, Yvonne Novy-Cutler, a cheerfully sarcastic, British-born advocate for families with special needs children, says she tried to temper her son’s reaction.
“He said, ‘Mum, they think I have syphilis.’ I said, ‘Ok…. What have you been doing?!’” Novy’s mom recalls. “He said, ‘No, they’re wrong. I have leukemia.’ I told him, ‘Hold on, Josh. You’re not a doctor yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here.' ”
Following his gut instinct, Novy defied his doctor’s protocol and his mother’s advice. It’s lucky he did. (If a cancer diagnosis can ever be considered lucky.)
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Novy was right. The next phone call he got was his oncologist requesting a bone marrow biopsy. A week later he was diagnosed with the early phase of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, a white blood cell cancer that arises from an error in cell replication, essentially leading to the formation of a new, destructive chromosome known as the Philadelphia Chromosome, which spawns profound bone marrow complications. Over the course of the past decade, scientific breakthroughs had led to a new oral drug-based therapy with significantly reduced side effects as opposed to the former combination of invasive systemic chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. It was a breakthrough that led Novy’s oncologist to agree that he could potentially still attend medical school, while undergoing treatment at the university hospital.
Days later, Novy was unpacking his car in Miami. “It was emotionally dizzying. No matter how educated you are, when you hear the word 'cancer' your mind immediately jumps to the worst scenario possible. I’d spent a decade trying to get into medical school and suddenly it seemed like all of my hard work might be of absolutely no consequence,” Novy says. “I was moving over a thousand miles away from home. Despite my doctor telling me that this was very treatable, I was still frightened. I knew no one in Miami. Starting medical school in and of itself from an academic standpoint alone is a very trying time. Compounding that, the first few months, everyone is getting to know each other. Do I really want the first thing people to know about me is that I’m sick and I might be dying and I’ve got cancer? Did I really want to walk around for four years with that label as the sick kid?”
Having left his support system behind in New York, Novy was reluctant, based on the horror stories and urban legends he’d heard about the competitiveness of medical school, to alert anyone in his program.
“Josh was the kid who friended everybody on Facebook beforehand,” recalls his fellow Miller School of Medicine student, Leah [who asked we not use her last name for privacy]. “I had no idea anything was going on with him. He’s also one of the most selfless people I know. He would drop everything to do a favor for anyone.” Case in point: right off the bat, soon after the two moved to Miami, Leah went to town furnishing her apartment and Novy offered to drive her to a local furniture store to pick up a coffee table, and then helped her lug “this 100-pound piece of glass tabletop” inside.
Slowly, in case he missed class and needed to share notes, Novy began to relate his diagnosis with a close circle of friends, including Leah and another medical student, Josh Jue. “He was having flare-ups,” Jue says. “Vomiting, fatigue, and gastrointestinal infections. He was really struggling, physically, and it began to show, but he always had the books in his hands. He’d nap on his desk if he had to.”
Meanwhile, Yvonne Novy-Cutler was calling her son to check in. “Can’t talk. I’m busy. Studying,” he’d tell her, not wanting her to know that he was wincing in pain, or hunched over the toilet every night. “It wasn’t until later that I found he was sick as a dog and had lost thirty pounds,” she says.
“The first few months were very difficult,” Novy explains. “I was surrounded by these people whom I shared a common struggle with -- the struggle to master the human body through medical school -- but at the same time I felt very isolated because I didn’t feel I could tell people what was really going on with me, and I started to struggle academically. That was a very dark point. At the onset, I tried to keep my situation under wraps, but basically, in the first few months of treatment, I started to look like sh** and people started coming up to me to ask me what was going on. Finally, I realized -- sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to help me achieve my goals. I said to myself, 'You gotta battle through this.' ”
Thrillist partnered with Modelo® to find someone who truly embodied the fighting spirit. So we looked to our readers to nominate someone who has overcome a hardship or who selflessly gives back to their community for a chance for their story to be told on Thrillist. That is how we discovered Joshua Novy. He not only struggles with sickness and hardship, but he uses it to his advantage to help others while always staying positive. So raise a glass of Modelo® to Josh and others like him making the world a better place.
Aware that his diagnosis was no longer possible to hide, in October Novy posted a note to his medical school class on Facebook. The news spread like wildfire. To this day, Novy is still caught off guard by how many friends and colleagues care enough to check in and ask him how he’s doing despite their busy hospital rounds and class loads. If the low point of his experience with leukemia hit during October 2014, Novy says the high point came during December of that year when he received news that his first round of treatment was working. This time, he posted a positive update on Facebook and invited his fellow students to a party at Fado, an Irish pub in downtown Miami. The majority of his class showed up to celebrate. And now, there is even more cause for celebration. Novy is responding well to treatment. His symptoms have largely stabilized, with the exception of the occasional flare-up, and his prognosis is good. And by 2018, he should be a full-fledged MD, having tackled cancer and med school simultaneously.
And his mom? This year in July, Yvonne Novy-Cutler flew to Miami to visit him. “It’s pretty incredible,” she says, of the visit and of her son’s accomplishments since he drove off for Miami three years ago. Novy, a self-taught cook, prepared an eight-course meal to honor her. The menu included salmon en croute, fried calamari (from scratch), a vegan cauliflower pasta, and two lobsters. Pooja Utamsingh, a Miller classmate and one of the dinner guests that night, says the food was so ridiculously delicious that she couldn’t believe Novy hadn’t “dropped out of medical school to try out for Top Chef.”
“Because I’m going through it myself, that’s helped me to be more patient, a little more tolerant when someone’s feeling frustrated or sad.”
In the meantime, Novy intentionally mined his ongoing experience with leukemia to inform his training as a doctor. “Through the course of my illness, four days I was not a medical student. The rest of my experience with this illness, I have been a medical student. One day I’ll be sitting around for two hours waiting to see my oncologist. The next day I’m in the clinic seeing patients myself and they’re cranky or frustrated about the wait time. I recognize -- 'Hey, they’re having a s***ty day, they’re sick.’ In my white coat, I serve a role and embody the ability to serve another person but very intimately I recognize what it’s like on the opposite side of the exam table, because I’m going through it myself and that’s helped me to be more patient, a little more tolerant when someone’s feeling frustrated or sad. It keeps me humble to realize that there’s a limit to how much I can really appreciate what this other person is going through and that’s always at the forefront of my mind.”
“It’s not that I live in a constant fear of dying,” he continues. “But a few years ago, four days out, I was like: I can’t believe I’m moving to Miami. I’m going to party. I’m moving to one of the most fantastic cities in the country and I’m going to a great medical school. When I got that phone call saying, ‘Hey, you have leukemia,’ it turned my world upside down. I realized I’m not this invincible guy. Despite my very carefully-laid plans, the universe is throwing a wrench into all of it. I used to procrastinate a lot. I used to put things off and think, oh, there will be time later. So I try to form relationships with as many people as I can. I try to stop for five minutes if I see someone and chat with them, even if I’m in a hurry to get somewhere because I used to think I could get to know them another time. Now I know -- there might not be time later.”