Olivia Oakley and her sister Payton at 2023 CCF Research Symposium on left, and Valerie Nguyen and her sister Cecilia in 2010.

Olivia Oakley and her sister Payton at 2023 CCF Research Symposium on left, and Valerie Nguyen and her sister Cecilia in 2010.

In past blogs, I’ve featured some remarkable parents who have moved forward from their child’s battle with cancer and transformed their pain into a non-profit or foundation, whether the goal is to increase awareness about melanoma prevention, or to offer “normal” high school experiences to a young patient.  Today, I am turning my focus to the impact that a cancer diagnosis has on siblings in the family, and how two sisters took a unique path stemming from their experience.

When a family receives a cancer diagnosis, everyone’s lives in that family are turned upside down. Treatments are time-sensitive and take priority over everything. This can mean lengthy drives to the treating hospital, adjustment of schedules, even changing or leaving jobs so that a parent can become a full-time caregiver. For siblings, that means after-school activities may need to be canceled, parents may be unavailable to help with homework or to attend a game, and may feel the effect of new financial impacts. In so many cancer diagnoses, it is common for grandparents and extended family to jump in to become caregivers, drivers and babysitters. The domino effect is deep and wide when cancer arrives.

Over the years, I have been moved by how a sibling reacts to the diagnosis of their brother or sister. In so many cases, the sibling’s life is impacted as much as the patient. Their acceptance, resilience and support are amazing, but the impact can also create anger, frustration, fear, and vulnerability. Each family manages the diagnosis differently.

Olivia and Payton Oakley at the Force 3 Crushin’ Cancer Crab Fest in 2018.

One incredible local family, the Oakleys, received the diagnosis that their three-year-old Payton had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) in October 2010. During that time, she endured numerous chemotherapy treatments and hospital stays at the University of Maryland Medical Center. She is now cancer-free and just began her sophomore year of high school. Her diagnosis had a profound impact on her sister, Olivia, now a research technician in the lab of Jeff Toretsky, M.D., Director of Georgetown’s Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Department and Chair of CCF’s Scientific Advisory Board.

Olivia Oakley was ten when her younger sister, Payton, was diagnosed with leukemia. She recalls her parents being gone a lot and reassuring her, and her brother Seiler, that Payton was doing okay. Olivia remembers that she did not want to visit Payton often because she did not want to cry in front of her. Olivia wanted to be strong for her sister.

When Payton completed treatments, Olivia was in seventh grade and had developed a passion for science. Once in high school, following an AP Biology class, Olivia knew that she wanted to pursue a career in biology.

At the 202

Olivia Oakley presents her poster to other researchers during the 2023 CCF Research Symposium.

At the same time, Olivia and the Oakley family had been attending many CCF events and meeting others within the CCF community. One relationship in particular would be instrumental for the future of her studies. Olivia was introduced to Jeff Toretsky, M.D. Olivia followed up with Dr. Toretsky in late 2019, during Olivia’s junior year at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. After sharing her career interests with him and meeting in person in early 2020, Olivia was offered an internship in Dr. Toretsky’s lab in the Summer of 2020. COVID had other plans. While the internship did not materialize, Olivia applied for a full-time position in Dr. Toretsky’s lab after she graduated in Spring 2021 with her degree in Biology. Accepted for the position, Olivia had begun her career in pediatric cancer research.

While Olivia considers options moving forward, she is determined to pursue a career path that keeps her close to research. She finds the process fascinating, even when most people get discouraged. Olivia notes that research “failures can be just as informative as successes.” From personal experience, Olivia knows how slowly pediatric cancer research advances. It can take many years before a new treatment option or a cure is identified. Olivia’s passion to help find cures for pediatric cancer is clear. Her love for and commitment to Payton is obvious.

Valerie Nguyen talks with CCF President Tasha Museles at the 2018 CCF Research Symposium, where Valerie shared her journey of losing her sister to osteosarcoma.

In 2017, we were fortunate to meet another inspiring young woman, Valerie Nguyen, when she attended the CCF Scientific Symposium. Just a year before, Valerie Nguyen had lost her sister Cecilia to osteosarcoma. She worked through her grief by starting a club in her high school, where they raised awareness and organized pediatric cancer fundraisers. Valerie knew that this unimaginable loss would inspire her to pursue a career in pediatric cancer research. She also got to know Dr. Toretsky through the symposium, who over the years offered her guidance in honing her interests and connecting her with researchers once she entered UNC-Chapel Hill.

After graduating with a B.S. from UNC-Chapel Hill in Spring 2022, Valerie received the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, and the only one dedicated to pediatric cancer, which sent her to the Netherlands. Valerie shared that her Fulbright year was one of tremendous personal and professional growth, allowing her to study with Thomas Grunewald, M.D. Valerie also learned how medical practice in the Netherlands is much more integrated than it is in the U.S.

Valerie caught up with CCF President Tasha Museles via Zoom in August 2021.

I spoke most recently with Valerie in July 2023, just before she moved back to North Carolina for graduate studies at Duke University. Valerie has decided to pursue a dual degree M.D./Ph.D. program, where she will begin in medical school in the Fall of 2025. She is shifting her focus from Ewing sarcoma to osteosarcoma, the type of cancer that took her sister. Valerie is excited to return to North Carolina and hopeful that the two power hubs (UNC and Duke) are open to collaboration.

A cancer diagnosis of a young child and family is beyond comprehension. What we have learned over the years is that the entire family is impacted. After talking with these two extraordinary young women, it is clear that a diagnosis of cancer in their family directly molded their career plans. I am confident Olivia and Valerie will accomplish much and make a needed impact on advancing pediatric cancer research. I look forward to following their careers.

With appreciation,


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