Ralph Wozniak, an Engineer for Life

Categories: Winter 2016
Ralph Wozniak’s career as a chemical engineer brought him and his family all over the world. When faced with prostate cancer, his scientific approach helped him and his doctors identify the best course of treatment. Now, he’s retired in Florida, enjoying his family, and volunteering his time as a Prostate SPORE advocate.
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Ralph (center) with his wife Janet (far left) and their children and grandchildren. The family celebrated Ralph’s 70th birthday at Harry Caray’s, followed by an outing to a Chicago Cubs game.

Ralph and Janet Wozniak married in 1965 when they were 21 and 20 years old, respectively. After graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a degree in chemical engineering, Ralph took a position at Universal Oil Products (UOP), a global company that licenses refining and petrochemical technologies to clients worldwide. With Ralph’s new job, he and Janet— two lifetime Chicagoans—had the opportunity to travel all over the world.

Their oldest child, Michelle, was only 4 months old when they moved to Japan, followed by Italy and then Brazil. After their son Michael was born, the family lived in Switzerland and London with a few years in between in the Chicago area for Ralph to obtain an MBA at the University of Chicago. “It’s been a great experience living and traveling around the world. It’s never something I thought I would do. I was just a kid from Chicago,” Ralph said.

Janet and Ralph Wozniak recently moved full-time to Sanibel Island, Florida.

The Wozniaks immersed themselves in the places they lived, sending their children to local daycares and schools, and getting involved in the communities. Although raising their children abroad had its challenges, Janet said, “It opened up a whole world to us.” Two highlights of their time abroad were the years they spent in Italy and Switzerland. Ralph said that Switzerland was a “great place to raise a family.” For Janet, connecting with her Italian heritage in Italy was invaluable. “I’d move back in a heartbeat if we had the opportunity,” she said.

Ralph eventually became the head of the Global Petrochemicals Business at UOP and the family settled in Inverness, Illinois. Ralph worked with the research and development department, advising and supporting their work with the objective of commercializing the new technology. He ended his full-time career at UOP as head of the Global Provisioning of Engineering, Services and Equipment. After retirement, he came back to the company as a consultant for 11 years, finally retiring for good in September.

Facing prostate cancer

In 2006, Ralph was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had been “religious” about getting his PSA checked, and although his PSA had been “creeping up,” his doctor typically waited until the PSA reached 4 to recommend a biopsy.

Unfortunately, Ralph missed a year of PSA testing, during which his PSA jumped from 3 to 11. A biopsy revealed cancer. Ralph planned to have a robotic prostatectomy in November 2006, but the surgery was aborted after discovering the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Since then, he’s had hormonal and radiation treatments to manage his prostate cancer.

Ralph used his scientific background to research treatment options for advanced cancer. “You have all this data, and have to come up with a conclusion. It’s something I’m very used to,” he said. He keeps a detailed chart of his PSA in time with all his treatments, and stays up-to-date on the published literature of treatments. Janet said, “When Ralph told me what route he was going to take [for treatment] I supported him because Ralph explores every avenue. I’m very thankful he has been able to find the doctors and treatments that work for him. He looks better today than he did 5 years ago.”


On PSA testing

Ralph hopes that other men will be vigilant of their PSA scores and hopes his story will shed light on the value of PSA testing. He said, “If you look at my situation, had I stuck to my guns and did the PSA test every year or 6 months, or had a biopsy, I may not have had metastatic cancer. There could have been a chance for a cure.” Janet feels the same way. “Ralph has convinced me you need to do the PSA and be vigilant because this means all the difference in the world,” she said.

SPORE Advocacy

In the spring, Ralph became a patient advocate with the Prostate SPORE at Northwestern University. Dr. Catalona is Principal Investigator of the SPORE, a collaborative research group focusing on translational research that will translate scientific discovery into tangible advances in clinical care.

SPORE advocates attend the monthly meeting of the SPORE investigators, where the researchers present their progress, and advocates are invited to provide feedback from a lay perspective. “I have a thirst for this kind of knowledge: genetics, chemistry, and biochemistry,” he said. Ralph’s background in research and development has helped him be an involved advocate. “I am still learning an awful lot, but I’m trying to also stand back and look at these projects from the 40,000-foot level and see if it will make sense in the grander scheme of things,” he said.

SPORE advocates also serve as ambassadors between the SPORE and the larger prostate cancer community and encourage men to consider participation in SPORE clinical trials, if they meet the qualifications to participate. Ralph is connected to the prostate cancer community through his involvement with Us TOO International, an organization of prostate cancer education and support groups.

New adventures

This spring, Ralph and Janet moved full time to Sanibel Island, Florida. They’ve visited there since 1968, lived there part-time since 2006 and have always loved it. “It’s just so nice to be able to be outdoors all the time and not have to worry about winter,” Janet said.

They return to Chicago frequently to stay connected with their children and 6 grandchildren, who range from ages 7 to 19. During these visits Ralph attends SPORE meetings and participates via the Internet when not in Chicago.

In their free time, Ralph enjoys sports—he’s a lifelong fan of the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cubs- as well as economics and politics. The Wozniaks continue to travel, returning to Italy every couple of years. They have also taken a cruise through Southeast Asia, and in the next couple of years plan to visit Spain, Portugal, New Zealand and Australia.

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