What Rare Brain Cancer Expert Did When His Own Son Got It

'The chances of beating it were so small ... and yet, you try': Dr. Sam Gambhir on usually fatal disease
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 7, 2016 2:20 PM CST
What Rare Brain Cancer Expert Did When His Own Son Got It
A father's fight to save his son is leading the way to save others.   (Getty Images)

As the chair of Stanford University's Department of Radiology, Sam Gambhir had studied a specific type of brain tumor called a glioblastoma multiforme. So it was a shock when his own 14-year-old son, Milan, was found to have one—a "brutal" coincidence, per the Stanford Medicine Diagnostics journal, which tells the story of his family's cruel discovery. It was especially stunning as Milan had had a clear CT scan just nine months earlier after a rafting accident. Gambhir knew that fewer than 5% of patients with GBM were still alive five years after diagnosis—but it was his son, and so there was no option of giving up. "I knew the chances of beating it were so small, especially because by the time Milan's GBM was caught it was already quite spread," he says. "It is more frustrating and anxiety-provoking when you know what the outcomes of patients with GBM are. … And yet, you try."

He tapped into colleagues' expertise and turned to "precision medicine," a custom-made treatment regimen for each cancer patient. It turned out Milan had an extremely rare genetic mutation called Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which his mother also tested positive for. Milan's oncologist tells the journal that Gambhir "obviously wanted progress for Milan's sake, but he also knew that any progress that helped his son would also be for the greater good." Milan battled the tumor for nearly two years, but he died in May 2015 at the age of 16. Yet his brain cells, culled during surgery during the early days of his illness, are now being used in global research against the disease. And a wearable device he'd been working on to detect cancer recurrence was granted a patent right after his death. "I think I was always empathetic toward illness," his dad says. "But not as empathetic as I am now, knowing what it's like to have a sick child." (Read the Gambhirs' heartbreaking yet inspiring story here.)

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