Man returns to school at 60 to study cancer that killed his wife

Powel Crosley with his wife Sladjana, who died of a rare type of ovarian cancer in 2009.

Courtesy of Powel Crosley

Last Updated Sep 2, 2014 1:57 PM EDT

A 60-year-old man from Alberta, Canada, has returned to college to study the cancer that killed his wife. Powel Crosley lost his wife, Sladjana, in 2009, when she was just 58, to a rare form of ovarian cancer known as granulosa cell tumor. This type of cancer is so uncommon, it only accounts for about 5 percent of ovarian cancer cases.

"The main thing I'm trying to do is come up with an effective treatment," Crosley told CBS News.

Crosley, who was profiled in the Globe and Mail newspaper on Tuesday, is one of the oldest undergraduate students at the University of Alberta. He spent his earlier career working in information technology, and enrolled at the school in 2010, decades after his last stint in college as a student in geography.

He's currently doing course work in biochemistry and oncology, and helped secure a $60,000 grant to continue his research in one of the university's oncology labs -- even though he didn't have a previous science background. Crosley is using the money to fund testing on a new cancer drug developed at the University of Illinois, which has shown potential for treating the cancer that killed his wife. The drug, known as Pac-1 has already shown to be effective on dogs with lymphoma, a type of cancer that may rely on the same pathways as his late wife's ovarian cancer, which has an 85 percent mortality rate.

He hopes it will prove to be a better alternative than the treatments currently on the market. "Many of the drugs are highly toxic," he said.

Crosley said his wife's death wasn't due to the cancer specifically, but rather internal bleeding, a complication of the medication she was taking at the time. She underwent six major surgeries and several clinical trials but the cancer always recurred and eventually metastasized to her liver and lung cavity.

She was diagnosed with the cancer in 1996, some time after a visit to the emergency room in which her abdominal pain was initially misdiagnosed and blamed on gas. Crosley said his wife's type of cancer is not linked to any sort of genetic or environmental risks.

"They told us they caught it early, they told us there was no sign of the disease, they told us it wouldn't come back," he said.

Crosley told CBS News he is hoping to spread the word about his research in an effort to find women with this type of cancer who are willing to provide the lab with samples of tumor tissue for further testing of the drug.

In many ways, Crosley is continuing the legacy of his wife, who was a chemical engineer and studied the scientific literature about her cancer for 13 years. Crosley said his wife initially discovered literature that indicated Pac-1 could have the potential for stopping metastasizes of her cancer.

When Sladjana began treatment, she quickly learned that information about her illness was scarce, so during that time she founded the Granulosa Cell Tumor Research Foundation in order to provide patients with access to information. She continued to fight recurrences of the disease for more than a decade.

"She had tremendous drive and determination to look into things and achieve things. She was incredibly intelligent and just a very strong person," Crosley said in a July interview on the University of Alberta website.

Since his wife passed away, Crosley has run her foundation. He's participated in numerous marathons to raise money to sustain the organization.

"Her motto was: The answer lies in the lab," Crosley told the Globe and Mail. "She was pretty persistent about things she believed in. And so I'm just basically completing her mission."