Multiple Cancer Diagnoses Spark a Career in Pediatric Cancer Research
When Suresh Madheswaran, PhD, was diagnosed with multiple cancers, he took it on himself to advance the research — for his own sake and for his fellow cancer patients.
In 2005, at age 21, Suresh Madheswaran, PhD, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his left arm. An osteosarcoma diagnosis would be life-altering for anyone, but for Suresh it was especially troubling because he had had cancer once before — not osteosarcoma, but Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at age 6.
Suresh had been living cancer-free in Tamil Nadu, India, for fourteen years after he completed treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Then at age 20, he was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. A year later, he was shocked to learn that he had osteosarcoma. In 2008, he was diagnosed with a third cancer called basal cell carcinoma. Suresh wanted to know if there was some connection between all these diagnoses.
“I asked myself, what would be the cause of this? Is it bad luck? Is it something in my genes? Could it have been the radiation from my previous cancer treatment? What is the reason?” To this day, he has kept tumor samples (FFPE blocks) from his osteosarcoma, so he can continue studying the tumor profile.
Even though chemotherapy for osteosarcoma left him extremely tired and sick, Suresh mustered his energy to try to find answers to his questions. He learned about Barnett Rosenberg, a chemist who discovered the cancer drug cisplatin, one of the chemotherapy drugs he took for his osteosarcoma treatment. This story sparked something in him. “I thought if Dr. Rosenberg could do something like this, why couldn’t I give it a try?”
At the time of his diagnosis, Suresh was pursuing an undergraduate degree in biotechnology. Now, his interests became more and more focused on cancer. As he dove into the research on cancer therapy — and experienced firsthand the harsh side effects of chemotherapy and radiation — he became determined to find treatment options that caused less severe reactions.
“I became fascinated by targeted therapy and immunotherapy when I learned how the immune system has the greatest potential to combat cancer,” he says. Eventually, he was able to move to Cape Town, South Africa, to pursue a PhD in targeted therapy.
Letting Cancer Shape His Story
As a survivor of multiple cancers, Suresh has faced unique challenges. In India, a cousin asked him not to participate in their family’s ritual festivals because he felt that Suresh’s presence was a “bad sign.” Suresh says that there is a stigma associated with having had cancer, and potential employers have turned him down for work because they assumed that he would be frequently sick and unable to work as effectively as others. Suresh also believes that his stature and physical strength have been limited by the cancer treatments he received as a child.
Suresh Madheswaran, PhD
Despite all this, Suresh is proud of how osteosarcoma changed his path in life. “Having osteosarcoma lit a fire in me to find a purpose in my life,” says Suresh. “Before osteosarcoma, I had no purpose. Now, I have something I am working towards. My long-term goal is to work in cell and gene therapy and conduct research for aggressive pediatric cancer. I want to do something to help others in the context of cancer research, and eventually save the lives of the sick and the wounded.”
He has even given himself the nickname “Onco Suresh.” The name bears tribute to his cancer success story. Even though he has suffered so much from cancer, he also credits cancer for giving him his ambition to help others — especially innocent kids with illnesses.
Embracing Life’s Blessings
Today, Suresh is a PhD graduate and is working on a postdoc in tumor immunology at the Department of Pediatrics, Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego. His research focus is on neuroblastoma, another form of childhood cancer. He is investigating ways to manipulate the immune system to protect patients from relapse.
“I’m very nervous about my cancer coming back, but if you stand for something good, you won’t feel bad for falling down. You will never stop getting up again. Even if my life is shorter, I want it to be meaningful.” — Suresh Madheswaran, PhD
Suresh married his wife, Yuvarani, in October 2021, shortly before moving to the United States for his postdoc at UC San Diego. They recently received the encouraging news that Yuvarani is pregnant — a “great moment” for the couple, and also an indication that Suresh retained his fertility despite the cancer treatments.
With his new family in his life, Suresh admits that he feels more anxious than before about his cancer coming back. But leaning on his spirituality, he tries to let go of the things he cannot control and focus instead on being compassionate and standing for what is right.
“I’m very nervous about my cancer coming back, but if you stand for something good, you will never stop getting up again,” Suresh says. “Even if my life is shorter, I want it to be meaningful.”
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