Falcons help Minnesota man soar above cancer

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

By Joel Streed

A species that was once endangered in Minnesota is now thriving, thanks in part to Mayo Clinic. Recently, four new peregrine falcon chicks that have been nesting in a box atop one of Mayo Clinic's buildings were brought inside for a quick checkup and to be banded. It's all part of a collaboration between Mayo and the Midwest Peregrine Society. But this time, there was an extra pair of experienced hands to help.

For more than three decades, Peter Smerud has been a part of the reintroduction of the peregrine falcon to Minnesota. "What my role has been primarily is helping in the banding efforts along the north shore of Lake Superior, north of Duluth."

Not that long ago, the peregrine falcon population in the U.S. was decimated by the widespread use of pesticides. Now, thanks to efforts like these, a species that was endangered and, on the edge of extinction is again thriving in Minnesota. "Now there are 6,070 nest sites in the state of Minnesota," according to Smerud.

But it's not the falcons that first brought Peter to Mayo Clinic. He was in some danger himself.

"When you get that call, your heart just drops. You have cancer and your world is shattered for a moment," says Smerud.

Watch this video to hear more of Peter Smerud's story:

"He came in with what we thought was likely oropharynx cancer. He had presented like many patients do with this disease: with a lump in his neck." Dr. Daniel Price is a head and neck surgeon in the department of otorhinolaryngology at Mayo Clinic and a member of Peter's multidisciplinary care team.  A biospy had confirmed Peter's throat cancer was the result of HPV, the human papillomavirus. "HPV-related tumors are very sensitive to both surgery and radiation and chemotherapy. We pioneered a treatment for this. When we do surgery, we then treat them with a very short course — just two weeks of radiation and chemotherapy."

This limits potential side effects and helps patients get back on their feet sooner. As he assists with the banding of the new chicks, Peter now feels an even deeper connection. "It's really struck me how what I've been doing for most of my career with peregrines really feels a strong parallel to what I've experienced here at Mayo Clinic, in that the peregrine population is now so successfully reintroduced, and I am now cancer-free for the past 18 months."

Four new lives, and one new lease on life.

Dr. Price says HPV-related cancers are becoming more and more common. But if you are between the ages of 9 and 45, you are eligible for the HPV vaccine, which cuts your risk almost to zero. As for the falcons, Mayo Clinic has been working with the Midwest Peregrine Society for the past 35 years. Seventy chicks have been hatched over that time. Unfortunately, one of the chicks from this year’s hatch has since died.


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A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic News Network.