When Althea Hansel was 3 years old, she was diagnosed with stage IV high-risk neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that most commonly originates in the adrenal glands. At the time of her diagnosis, the survival rate for high-risk neuroblastoma was just 40-percent, a bleak outlook for a little girl just starting her life.
Today, Althea is 18 years old and preparing for a career as a pediatric oncologist.
How her life came full circle speaks to the courage of children who battle childhood cancer—the disease leaves its scars, but it also seems to ignite passion, strength and courage in the littlest fighters.
Althea's treatment protocol was intense and grueling. It included five rounds of chemotherapy, surgical resections of tumors, two stem cell transplants, many weeks of local radiation and six weeks of Accutane, a drug that can prevent recurrence of neuroblastoma following chemotherapy and stem transplants in some patients.
After her second stem cell transplant, Althea developed Epstein Barr Virus and a lymphoproliferative disorder in her liver, which would land her in and out of the ICU over two months, struggling to breathe and struggling to survive.
If it was not for the skilled nurses and doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Althea might not have survived.
One year after her initial diagnosis, Althea finished treatment. It would be a month before she could eat and speak; and three months until she finished rehabilitative therapy and was able to leave medical quarantine. After 15 long months, Althea was finally back and able to continue her childhood.
Future Pediatric Oncologist
Althea does not remember being sick; however she feels she owes her life to the skilled medical professionals who cared for her and guided her treatment plan.
“I was given my life when too many others were not. Now I want to give it back to other patients the way my doctors and nurses gave their time and expertise to me,” said Hansel.
Now a freshman at Harvey Mudd College, a prominent science and engineering college in California, Althea spent her high school summers in the lab of Dr. Yael Mosse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
In addition to time in the lab, Althea spent time shadowing Dr. Mosse as she treated patients—some of whom had exhausted all treatment options.
“Dr. Mosse often speaks of how inspired she is by her patients, by their strength and resolve. Now I am, too,” said Althea.
This summer, Althea will study neuroblastoma as an Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation POST (Pediatric Oncology Student Training Program) grantee in the lab of Dr. Clay Gustafson (an ALSF ‘A’ Award and Reach Grantee) at the University of California San Francisco. She will also shadow Dr. Kate Matthay, who is a Center of Excellence and Program Infrastructure grantee and member of the ALSF Scientific Advisory Board.
The ALSF POST Grant is designed for undergraduate, graduate and medical students who have an interest in pediatric oncology research and would like to experience the field first hand. Students train with a pediatric oncology research mentor. Students may join a research project underway in a mentor’s lab or begin an original investigation with the mentor. POST Grantees are able to launch a career in pediatric oncology research right away and go on to continue innovative, cutting-edge research that will result in safer treatments and cures for all children battling cancer.
Althea suffers from a number of side effects from the toxicity of the chemo like high-frequency hearing loss, kidney cysts and hypothyroidism—but none of these deter her from pursuing a career as a pediatric oncologist.
“I have the responsibility to give back to those who did not survive or are currently fighting. I would like to do so in any way I can,” said Althea.
ALSF has funded over 550 childhood cancer research projects at 102 top hospitals and research institutions. Read more about the ALSF Grant Program and how cutting-edge, innovative research works in the fight against childhood cancer.