NDSU names award after 54-year-old British Ph.D. student with terminal cancer

FARGO-Life took on a kind of urgency when Mark Suffolk learned he had terminal cancer.The 54-year-old from Syston, England, sat down with his partner, Jenette, and "his words were, 'We've got to get married now,' " she said with a laugh. "There w...
Mark Suffolk was in Fargo this week with his wife, Jenette Suffolk, to accept an award from North Dakota State University that will henceforth be named after him. Mark Suffolk, 54, of Syston, England, has terminal cancer and is therefore unable to finish his Ph.D. at NDSU. Grace Lyden/The Forum

FARGO-Life took on a kind of urgency when Mark Suffolk learned he had terminal cancer.

The 54-year-old from Syston, England, sat down with his partner, Jenette, and "his words were, 'We've got to get married now,' " she said with a laugh. "There was no, 'Will you marry me?' "

They had known one another for 28 years. They have a 23-year-old daughter together. They were married March 18.

"It's all living for the minute, isn't it?" said Jenette Suffolk, 47.

The newlyweds were in town this week as North Dakota State University recognized Mark Suffolk with an award that will henceforth be named after him. Suffolk was pursuing a Ph.D. in developmental science at NDSU before he got the diagnosis in December.

"He was amazing as a student. That's the best way to put it," said Beth Blodgett Salafia, an associate professor of human development and family science, who was Suffolk's adviser at NDSU. "He's one of the best, brightest minds we've ever had in the classroom."

Suffolk started his education at age 45 at Loughborough University in England, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology. Prior to that, he worked various jobs in the meat industry, including a position as a slaughterman.

When the meat industry in the United Kingdom started to decline, he returned to school to improve his employment possibilities and ended up loving learning, he said.

A former competitive bodybuilder, Suffolk is particularly interested in male body image, aggression in sports and muscle dysmorphia. He chose NDSU because of its Eating Disorders and Body Image Lab.

A bumpy road

From the start, the road wasn't easy. Although Suffolk was accepted to NDSU in 2013, health problems kept him from starting until spring 2014. Then in August 2014, he had an episode that appeared to be a heart attack. He's still unsure of what exactly it was.

"There were a series of bumps along the way, and every time, he came back," Blodgett Salafia said. "He didn't want to give up his dream of getting a Ph.D."

After Suffolk went home with back pain in October 2015, he didn't come back. Instead, he was told he had an inoperable, stage 4 urethral cancer that had spread to his lungs.

"You just think the worst immediately," he recalled this week. " 'Oh, I've got two weeks to live and that's the end.' "

On average, patients with Suffolk's prognosis live 12 months, but that's "just an average," he said. He knows one man with the same cancer who's still alive after five years.

Since December, Suffolk has had six rounds of chemotherapy, and the tumors have slightly shrunk. But it's been tough for him, psychologically.

"You're carrying something around with you, a burden around with you, on a day-to-day basis, and it's never that far from your thinking," he said. "I know we're all unsure in one way about the future, but when you've been told, it's very difficult to come to terms with."

Upon hearing the prognosis, his first thoughts veered toward all of the things he still wants to do. But Suffolk hasn't been one for making a bucket list.

"We did everything we wanted to, didn't we?" Jenette Suffolk said, looking at her husband. "We never didn't do anything."

Music festivals. Camping trips. "A fairly simple existence," Mark Suffolk said.

'His name will carry on'

Blodgett Salafia was devastated when she opened the email with the news. She quickly began to think of what she could do for Suffolk, beyond sending a card.

That's how she came up with the idea for the Mark T. Suffolk Outstanding Contributions in Developmental Science Award-which was presented this week to Suffolk and will be given in subsequent years to other deserving students.

"It's almost the least we can do," Blodgett Salafia said. "If he can't get a Ph.D. with us, at least his name will carry on, and his contributions will be recognized."

Suffolk, for one, is hopeful that he can earn his Ph.D. in the United Kingdom. He's published five articles in peer-reviewed journals, and he could write them up as one dissertation, he said.

"It's not totally lost," he said. "I have to be sensible and realize how long I have left. But at the moment, it looks like it's a possibility."