These researchers have dedicated their careers to finding new treatments and cures for people with cancer.
Images: Dr. Jenny Ruiz (above) and her patient, Leo (below)
Imagine you’re a mother, sitting at the pediatrician’s office, learning that your young son has an advanced and rare form of kidney cancer. Imagine the shock, the fear, and the uncertainty. It’s an experience Leo’s mom Nicole knows all too well.
“I was devastated,” Nicole recalls. “I couldn’t believe my baby was so sick. I’ll never forget that day, how scared I was and not knowing what was going to happen to him.”
When he was 2 years old, Leo was diagnosed with an advanced-stage Wilms tumor. Despite being the top disease-related cause of death for children*, pediatric cancers are largely considered rare—and Wilms tumors especially so. As with so many rare diseases, pediatric cancer receives significantly less research funding than other more common cancers and, consequently, fewer resources and more limited treatment options for patients and their families.
Leo’s oncologist, Dr. Jenny Ruiz, imagines a future in which her patients and their families have increased access to better treatment and care options.
Increasing the Odds and Reducing the Barriers for Pediatric Patients with Cancer
As a pediatric cancer researcher and physician, Dr. Ruiz has first-hand experience with the hurdles experienced by patients and physicians facing under-resourced cancers.
“The most common reason given by the government as to why pediatric cancer research is underfunded is that cancer in children is rare,” Dr. Ruiz says. “Yet for the children diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. every year, having cancer is not just rare. It’s their life. Since children are our future, we need cancer research to be funded, so we can reduce not only mortality but also long-term complications.”
Before she became a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Ruiz’s first encounter with children and cancer was years earlier, when her younger cousin received a leukemia diagnosis. While her cousin and family primarily spoke Spanish, the physician was English-speaking, leaving her teenage cousin to take on the role of interpreter, a role that Dr. Ruiz also took on when she was a teenager. It was a critical lesson in how life-threatening language barriers can be when patients and families with limited English proficiency must navigate cancer care.
“We know there are disparities and inequities in access and outcomes in pediatric oncology,” Dr. Ruiz says, “and that really drives me to find solutions to those problems.”
Now a recipient of several Conquer Cancer grants and awards, Dr. Ruiz continues to explore how language barriers affect survival rates for children with cancer.
She does this by integrating the social determinants of health (SDOH)—i.e., the social, economic, and physical circumstances in which people are born, live, and work—into her research.
Through the SDOH lens, Dr. Ruiz works to more holistically examine various factors that can shape cancer outcomes for children.
Despite the scarcity of pediatric cancer research funding, Dr. Ruiz persists in partnering with other physician-scientists to improve communication between doctors, patients, and loved ones. Investing in multidisciplinary, collaborative research helps children and families of all linguistic backgrounds to receive the lifesaving care they need.
“A lot of the advances we’ve made in pediatric cancer have been because of cooperative clinical trials,” Dr. Ruiz explains. “Collaborative research in pediatric cancer has improved survival rates and reduced toxicities. With every new clinical trial, we push ourselves to do better.”
The Lifesaving Impact of Supporting Childhood Cancer Research
Although her Conquer Cancer-funded research did not directly affect Leo’s experience, Dr. Ruiz drew from existing research to inform his care. When Leo’s pathology reports came back showing that his cancer was aggressive, Dr. Ruiz pivoted to a stronger treatment and screening regimen.
“Prior research on Wilms tumors definitely contributed to Leo's treatment plan,” Dr. Ruiz says. “It’s exciting to know that, even now, Wilms tumor researchers are continuing to investigate ways to improve risk stratification and thus personalize treatments even more.”
Today, three years after his diagnosis, a cancer-free Leo dreams of being a firefighter when he grows up.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ruiz remains determined to conquer cancer through her research—something made possible through donor funding—so that young patients like Leo can grow up, live fully, and pursue their dreams.
“Improving care for patients with pediatric cancers is important to me because children have their whole lives ahead of them,” Dr. Ruiz says. “A cancer diagnosis should not limit their future. The more children we cure with novel therapies that limit complications, the more likely they will be healthy as adults. And to me, that benefits everyone.”