Mother and Son, Both Cancer Survivors, Share Their Story on Radio-Telethon

When Lisa Robert is interviewed at Fenway Park  for the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon presented by Arbella Insurance Foundation (Aug 19-20), her mind will no doubt drift back to 1976, when she was a 7-year-old leukemia patient at Dana-Farber and had the thrill of her life. She threw out the first pitch of the season at Fenway to Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk.

Lisa, as a child, with Red Sox legend Carlton Fisk

Lisa won’t be the only member of her family reminiscing on air about pediatric cancer. Her son, Josh Robert, now 17, was treated at Dana-Farber in 2009 for Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Two generations of Jimmy Fund Clinic veterans in the same family is quite a rarity, but experts here anticipate they will be encountering it more often. Although there is no known genetic link between Josh’s illness and the acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) Lisa faced, more children with cancer are now recovering into adulthood – and physician-scientists are continually learning about additional late effects, including secondary and treatment-related cancers.

Lisa, with her son Josh, back in 2009

“We may be seeing the tip of the genetic iceberg as we begin to care for the children of the first and second generations of childhood cancer survivors,” says Jennifer Wu, MD, PhD, a hematologist/oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and Josh’s doctor. “We will be paying close attention to cancer risk in the children of survivors, both as a possible treatment effect and as a possible genetic link.”

Jennifer Brown, MD, PhD has done extensive research on families in which several individuals have blood cancers. “The cancer more commonly develops later in life in both individuals, but we do suspect a genetic link in some cases,” explains Brown, director of Dana-Farber’s Center for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. “We are using modern genomic technologies to investigate genes that could contribute.”

Cancer was the last thing on Lisa’s mind in 2009 when Josh, then 11, entered a hospital near the family’s Hudson, N.H. home for surgery to remove a growth on his neck. In the 1970s, Lisa’s parents had been told any children she had would have no increased cancer risk.

“When they discovered Josh had cancer, I knew what lay ahead, but I also had confidence that we would get through it,” says Lisa. “Josh asked me, ‘Am I going to die?’ and I told him, ‘No, you’re going to the best place in the world to take care of this.’”

Lisa and Joshua today

The 47-mile drive to Dana-Farber for Josh’s appointments was familiar to Lisa, who had grown up near Hudson in Derry, N.H. In another twist, Lisa’s two primary oncologists, Stephen Sallan, MD, and Orah Platt, MD, PhD, were still at Dana-Farber when Josh was cared by Wu and Lewis Silverman, MD – both of whom Sallan trained.

One day when Josh had an appointment in the Jimmy Fund Clinic, Sallan was there. He recognized Josh’s grandmother, Faye Tinkham, as Lisa’s mother. “Things had come full circle,” Lisa says of the encounter.

Dana-Farber’s tie with the Red Sox also endured in the years between Lisa’s and Josh’s experience. Lisa developed a love for the team she passed down to Josh, and he saw his first game at Fenway through tickets donated to the Jimmy Fund Clinic.

Now he’s a junior in high school hoping to become a fire fighter. After what he and his mom have gone through, he says, he looks forward to helping other people.