On March 18, with a pack weighing no more than 25 lbs, I will embark on a quest to walk from Mexico to Canada—literally. The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,659 miles along the western spine of mountains, and for me, it often served as a refuge during the stressful trials of being an undergraduate with dreams of reaching medical school. The day hikes and overnight camping trips planted the seed that has blossomed into the coming journey—an aspiration to trek byfoot from the Mexican border, across the deserts of Southern California, through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, before arriving in Manning Park, Canada. The idea is to combine my passions of hiking and science to raise awareness and funds for pediatric brain cancer research. And hopefully, by following my progress, the endeavor will teach and excite people about the history, geology and ecology that are preserved by the US National Trails System.
Why pediatric brain cancer research:
My friend’s brother, Michael Gustafson, died from medulloblastoma at the age of 15. Michael’s story hits home to me because, at its fundamental level, it epitomizes the human narrative of disease. When faced with the immanence of his mortality, Mikey decided to fight tooth and nail for what was most important in his life. This is the purpose I see for medicine—not just to alleviate pain, not to simply live longer, but to provide people the quality to pursue life in the manner they deem most meaningful. The limits of the cancer treatments available let Mikey down, but I firmly believe that the journey of a thousand miles—whether to hike the PCT, or to find a cure for pediatric brain cancer—begins with a single step. In this case, the intention is to raise four pennies for each step.
Four pennies is significant. Currently the National Cancer Institute, the largest source of funding for cancer research, invests only four pennies of every research dollar on children’s cancer research. The average age an adult is diagnosed with cancer is 66 while the average age of a child is 8. A child’s death from cancer accounts for 58 more years of life lost. Even when children survive their cancer, more than 75% of them have serious side effects for the remainder of their lives due to the treatments they endured. Given the number of years lost and the quality of years lost, science must do better, but it needs the resources to do so.
My goal is to raise four pennies for each of the more than 4.6 million steps it will take me to complete the PCT. The $185,000 raised will fund a clinical trial for children with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a brain cancer with a median survival rate of 9 months from diagnosis.
Throughout my hike, I will be inviting students from elementary through high school, and any other learners, to virtually companion me and discover the magnificence of the ecosystems that make up the PCT, learning about their geology, ecology and the history of the National Trails System. We will walk along together as I figure out how to survive four months on the trail (did I mention I have never done this before!). Those accompanying me will also learn about the challenges of pediatric brain cancer, and perhaps get involved in raising much needed funds and awareness.