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Why We Fight For a Cure


Jason Yustein, MD, PhD, Director, Faris D. Virani Ewing Sarcoma Center
I have known since high school I wanted to pursue medical research, but did not begin to explore the possibilities of becoming a pediatric oncologist, while also performing research on pediatric cancers, until I was in medical school. I remember vividly my initial experiences as a medical student being involved in the care of kids with cancer. It was an experience that challenged me academically and emotionally. I quickly realized that while we were able to cure a number of patients of their cancer, there were still too many others that were not so fortunate. It was frustrating realizing we did not truly understand their cancer, and how it behaved, in order to combat it more effectively. The sequela, or complications that resulted from a child’s cancer or treatment, was what hurt the most emotionally and not because of the outcome for the patient, but for the family and often community. It was these challenging experiences that motivated me to become a pediatric oncologist and use my degrees in medicine and molecular biology towards understanding and caring for kids with cancer.

I wanted to dedicate my career and contribute towards not only personally caring for kids with cancer, but also to put myself in an environment where I can immerse myself in learning intricate details about the biology of their cancers. It can feel awkward when I tell others that I love my job as a pediatric oncologist, but I do. I feel extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to work towards my goal, which is purely dedicated to improving the lives of those most innocent and vulnerable. Innocent, because children do not in any way contribute to the cause of their disease, and vulnerable because they heavily rely on all those around them to make key, personal decisions often without understanding the ramifications of these decisions.

Each day when I walk into work I envision my team is taking those small but steady steps towards gaining a better understanding of childhood cancer. We share a steadfast vision that one day each child, while so innocent and vulnerable, can be cured of their disease and enjoy the life most of us take so much for granted. In this blog, two of my lab members and myself at the Faris D. Virani Ewing Sarcoma Center, united in our mission to find a cure for Ewing sarcoma, share our personal perspectives on cancer.

Daniel Fuja, Graduate student, MD/PhD track, Ewing sarcoma research
When we were assigned preceptorships during the first year of medical school, I had two secrets: First, I hoped it would be close to home. Second, I was apprehensive of the emotional toll of caring for sick children.  My son was 2 months old and I had discovered that caring for a sick child simply took it out of me, emotionally. So, of course, fate would have me paired with a pediatrician preceptor. During that time I actually enjoyed my time with the tiny patients and discovered the joys of caring for them. Now, as an MD/PhD candidate, I constantly strive to see both the clinical and scientific aspects in the obstacles I encounter. Having these small warriors in mind lends an urgency and immediacy to the work I do. It helps me stay engaged and focused when the going gets rough. I will always carry the memories of my patients with me as I continue my training. This helps me envision the science behind the treatment and remember the motivation behind the science.

Ryan Shuck, Research Assistant, Faris D. Virani Ewing Sarcoma Center
The war on cancer is a very personal fight for me. You could say I have a beef with cancer. When I was young, my family’s world was turned upside down with a diagnosis in the family that forever changed our lives. It was a rollercoaster; we had a lot to learn and had to learn it fast. So much anxiety and uncertainty. So many tough calls, appointments, procedures, medications, all of which, while overwhelming, we were very grateful for because we had options. Sometimes, it even felt like we lived in the hospital. But it was in those waiting rooms where I witnessed true resilience. I remember somehow, through all of the adversity and heartache, there were still smiles and laughter. I think, in part, it was because we all had hope and faith in better days ahead. We just knew someone, somewhere, was searching for a cure.

After working in the childhood cancer research field, I now have a much better perspective on just how many dedicated scientists, clinicians and administrators are determined to end childhood cancer. They are a special breed that are truly committed to finding a cure, and they work tirelessly. If years in the lab have taught me anything, it’s that biomedical research is challenging. Experiments don’t always work out the way you’d expect, a lot of late nights and weekends, so many little things to think about and things that keep you up at night. But to me, that’s what’s so special about our team: we push forward, with even greater vigor, because we know what’s at stake. It’s a constant reminder that we can, and will not stop, until we beat cancer.

This month, in recognition of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, I am inspired by the strength and bravery of these children and their families. I am humbled by the daunting task families undertake each day to get their kids better. I am grateful to be a part of the team of medical professionals, researchers, administrators, foundations, families and everyone involved who hope and strive for a better future for kids with cancer. We will put a stop to cancer. We will defeat cancer.

Dr. Jason Yustein, Pediatric Oncologist