Teen Cancer Survivor Volunteers to Help Next Generation of Cancer Patients

18-year-old Catarina Gómez began college with a ten-year plan. Passionate about immigration law, her intention was to become an immigration attorney and from there, achieve a career in politics.

But life had other plans. In the middle of her freshman year, she was diagnosed with a rare pediatric brain tumor, called an ependymoma— a type of brain cancer that can affect the brain stem or spinal cord.

A series of serious headaches escalated to one particularly frightening experience. Gomez remembers reading and suddenly not being able to say the word on the page out-loud. Simultaneously, half her face went numb.

“I thought I was having a stroke,” said Gómez.

University of Minnesota Medical School Pediatric Neuro-Oncologist Christopher Moertel, MD said this rare brain tumor can be known to exhibit those symptoms. Gomez was referred to Moertel after doctors in Iowa successfully removed Gomez’s tumor late 2017.

“All pediatric brain tumors are rare, but within the universe of pediatric brain tumors, ependymomas are rarer still,” said Moertel.

But perhaps even more unique, was what Gómez decided to do with that diagnosis. She decided to sign up for a national clinical trial which is testing to see if a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy may further reduce the risk of recurrence in ependymoma, as opposed to just radiation alone. For Gómez, that meant additional chemotherapy after her completed radiation, but her participation in the study could help others diagnosed with the disease.

“I’ve been healthy my whole life. I would much rather deal with chemotherapy than see another child, a 4- or 5-year-old, go through that,” said Gomez. “And if this is going to help somebody else, I want to do it.”

Gómez truly left an impression on Moertel, who sees first-hand the impact research can have.

“I have a deep appreciation for those individuals and families who participate in these clinical trials. Without them, we wouldn’t get the answers we need,” said Moertel. “We are trying to learn how to increase our success and make a difference for the next generation of patients and their families.”

Her experience has also given her a new outlook on life, and on her 10-year plan. She is done with her chemotherapy treatment. And although she could face later complications, or even a recurrence of cancer, her current outlook is bright.

Now, she is strongly considering Medical School, and the place she most hopes to receive that education: the University of Minnesota Medical School.

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