A Doctor’s Childhood Dream to Cure Pediatric Cancer
September 14, 2015 | Inspiring Stories
Children are often asked what they want to be “when they grow up,” and for most, this simple question elicits looks of longing and perhaps a daydream or two. You expect to hear answers like rock star, television actor or professional athlete. But Jeffrey Huo was different. He knew from a very early age he wanted to be a doctor who helped kids with cancer.
“One of my cousins was diagnosed with a brain tumor just before I was born. He’s now 40 years in remission, but his experience as a childhood cancer patient had an enormous impact on my family,” Huo said. His family history may help him understand the emotions behind fighting childhood cancer better than most: “It’s terrifying because there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it or to anticipate it. It just simply turns a child and parents’ lives upside down.”
Huo was inspired to try to help other families, as his family was helped. Huo even had the chance to do one of his first pediatric cancer rotations as a medical student under some of the same physicians who’d helped his cousin more than 30 years prior. “Sometimes the universe is an amazing place. It was literally the same physicians in the same facility. The same place that had given so much to my family, I had the chance to give back to myself.”
Today Huo is researching an eye cancer called retinoblastoma at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland. “Because children’s cancers are more rare than cancer in adults, they have traditionally gotten less attention. But with the support of many generous donors over many years, we as a field have made great progress regardless, learning more and more about childhood cancers. And much of the same biology that drives childhood cancers is the same biology that drives many adult cancers. So while our work helps children, it also helps adults with cancer, too. The more we learn from one cancer, the more we can help everyone with cancer.”
But science is expensive, and the fight to fund pediatric cancer research is real. Even while facing government funding limits, Huo stays optimistic. “Progress isn’t something we’re going to make someday. Progress is something we’re making right now, every day. People’s small donations and larger donations have all helped us make enormous progress one step at a time.” Huo was recently given a $100,000 grant from the Northwestern Mutual Foundation through Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) to continue his work.
ALSF started when four-year-old Alexandra “Alex” Scott was battling cancer and decided she wanted to do something to help the doctors and hospital that had helped her. She held a lemonade stand in her front yard. By the time Alex lost her battle with cancer at age eight, she had raised more than $1 million. Today, her legacy lives on through ALSF, which now uses donations from lemonade stands all over the world to fund childhood cancer research. Huo says, “There are still too many kids like Alex for whom the very best isn’t yet enough. Until it is, until every kid gets to go home, until every kid gets to grow up, we’ll be here.”
While many people may be touched by cancer, not everyone ends up doing childhood cancer research. Dr. Huo knows his story is unique, but the lessons that can come from it don’t have to be. “Everyone has something they can do, something they can give kids with cancer or their families. All of us together can make the lives of those haunted by cancer better in their own special way. That’s what I would encourage. Find your passion and find a way you can share that with those affected by cancer.”
For now, Dr. Huo knows his fight will continue. “We have made incredible progress, and we will continue to make incredible progress. We’re going to do it the way we got here already, together. With all of your help, I really think we’re going to win this fight in my lifetime. And together, we are going to win.”