Funding The Best: Dr. Dan Wechsler
Article by Katie Sweet
Photo by Becca Lockhart
As parents, you want to take pain away from your children. You want to swallow their fears whole and absorb their heartaches. Like a sponge, you’d soak up whatever messes spilled their way and wring away the bad. That’s easy enough for scraped knees, bumped heads and broken hearts. When the monster under the bed is cancer, everything changes.
Childhood cancer is ugly and mean and unfair. It’s all those things we want to protect our kids from. For thousands of families every year, it’s the bully that shows up to their playgrounds. Let’s not let them fight alone.
Meet Dr. Dan Wechsler. He is a pediatric hematology-oncology specialist at Duke University. His research, supported in part by The V Foundation, was made possible through a grant funded by the Apple Gold Group.
Wechsler’s focus is leukemia. With cure rates for childhood leukemia around 90%, it’s clear that research has been productive. As with progress in general, when you make advancements, you encounter new challenges. Why are there kids who don’t respond to standard treatment? Why do some get it again? How can we improve current treatments to reduce later complications? Saving a life is a priority, but preserving a high quality of life for someone who has another 80+ years doesn’t exactly take a back seat. There are unique challenges presented when working with the smallest of patients.
“In most pediatric cases, if you stay cancer-free for five years, we call you cured. So now, we are looking at a new thing called ‘survivorship,'” Wechsler said. “And among the things we are looking at is how can we cut back on therapy while still treating the cancer and reducing the side effects. Long-term effects [of cancer treatments] include fertility issues, neuro-cognitive issues and endocrine issues, and you can sometimes get a second cancer that’s completely unrelated to the first cancer, from treatments.”
It’s a delicate balance between being aggressive enough on a disease but gentle enough on the little body hosting the showdown between cutting edge science and cancer. When kids don’t respond to initial treatment, it becomes even more difficult.
On top of these challenges, remember: we’re all someone’s baby. Treating a child, no matter the age, is a family affair. Wechsler said there is a need to focus not only on the patient but also on the parents and any siblings, spending time explaining things at a level that can be understood by children as well as adults. The best part of his lesson with each new family? He gets to reassure everyone that survival rates are going up for most childhood cancers, and the research he is a part of is working. But, we’re not finished yet.
Research has certainly flipped the light switch on the Boogey Man in the dark. Those monsters don’t stand a chance. More lives are saved today but not every child’s life – and that’s not good enough for Dr. Wechsler, and it’s not good enough for us. Every child should live. Every child should thrive.
Wechsler thought back through his patients, insisting he could never pick a story that stood out more than another. He wants to save everyone’s baby. He recounted success stories, recalling small and very sick patients from years ago, who are completely normal and healthy high school students and even young adults today. That’s what he and other pediatric researchers want to give to every family.
His research today comes from the loss of one of his patients several years ago. Her leukemia presented an odd mutation, one that prevented treatments from working and one that Dr. Wechsler is learning today to defeat.
Things are going in the right direction in pediatric cancer research. More survivors means we’re getting there. Help us write the happy ending every family deserves. Let’s make sure the only thing lurking under those beds are shoe boxes full of memories of a long and happy childhood.