As Director of Radiation Oncology at both Touro and University Medical Center, Dr. Ellen Zakris has seen plenty of tough cases in her career, but one of the toughest was one where a family was hit doubly hard.
“I was working with a young family that had already had one infant die of a rare brain tumor, and then that family had another child and that child developed a similar brain tumor and also died,” she says. “It turned out the parents were carriers of a rare genetic condition that predisposes their offspring to cancer.”
While Zakris says she was originally attracted to oncology because she found cancer to be a “fascinating discipline that’s challenging both emotionally and academically,” she says this family’s repeated losses were particularly difficult.
“Academically it was difficult because with common cancers you have published national guidelines you follow for care,” she says, “but with rare cases those guidelines don’t exist. For those we have to use all the education we have and all our resources, including other colleagues.”
On the emotional side, Zakris found herself inspired by the family’s response.
“I remember the mother started this huge fundraiser for childhood cancer,” she says. “She became this amazing advocate and educator, making it her goal to spread the word. I will never forget them.”
Pediatric cancer, she says, is still relatively rare compared to adult cancer.
“Cancer is the No. 2 killer in adults,” she says. “There’s over 200,000 breast cancer cases alone each year just in the United States. Contrast that with the fact that the most common solid tumor cancer cases in children are brain tumors, and there are less than 20,000 of those cases a year.”
While the work can be extra emotional, Zakris says she loves working with children.
“They’re so appreciative, so trusting,” she says. “Plus, over 80 percent of pediatric tumors are cured with treatment. It’s both so challenging and rewarding. I love it.”
Director of Radiation Oncology
Touro Infirmary and University Medical Center
1401 Foucher St. | New Orleans | 897-8387