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About Sickkids
About SickKids

September 10, 2012

Diana Merino: Childhood Cancer Survivor, now a SickKids trainee

PhD Candidate, Genetics & Genome Biology, SickKids
Department of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto

By Sylvia Dick

Diana Merino started training as a PhD student at SickKids in 2010. It didn’t take her much time to find her way around because she was once a patient at the hospital. At 15 she was diagnosed with cancer for a second time and was admitted to SickKids for treatment. It was during this trying time that her passion for health sciences developed. Her courage and determination drove her to work hard in school and she is now making a difference by contributing to advancements in childhood cancer research. In honour of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Diana agreed to share her story, one that has truly come full circle.

Where are you from?  Where did you study?

I am originally from Lima, Peru, and my family moved to Canada when I was 15.

I have a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Waterloo and a Masters of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences from the University of Guelph. Currently, I am completing my PhD in Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto. I heard about Dr. Malkin’s work at SickKids in cancer genomics and with Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS), which is a cancer predisposition syndrome. I was fascinated with his research and I still am; only now I am on his team as a trainee.

Where does your passion for science, and particularly genomics, come from?

My time as a patient at SickKids definitely influenced my interest in health sciences. Being surrounded by nurses and doctors and learning some of their lingo had an effect on what I wanted to learn when I got back to high school.

I was really drawn to biology because it’s a discipline that seeks the answers to some of the questions that interest me most surrounding health and disease. With science, the learning is objective and factual. I get excited when I can draw correlations between A and B, like the correlations between certain altered genes and tumours.

The study of genomics adds another angle to health research. It allows me to see things within the context of a person’s predisposition, or seek the root of a person’s disease. I find it fascinating that everything is coded in a person’s DNA, and although our genome is inherited, it is also quite dynamic and very prone to change. Those changes can improve our genetic makeup, but they can also trigger diseases such as cancer.

What was your experience like as a patient at SickKids?

The care that my family and I received at SickKids was amazing. I was a patient for just under 10 months and went through four cycles of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a cancer affecting the white blood cells. Each time I had to stay for one week and I became very acquainted with everyone on the eighth floor. The staff and patients became like a second family. The nurses and doctors were so good to be around and very compassionate.

Because at 15 I was older than a lot of the kids in the hospital, I became a kind of role model. I played with the younger kids, encouraged them, and tried to make them feel better. This is something I continue to do as a camp counsellor and volunteer for Camp Oochigeas – a camp for kids affected by childhood cancer.

You are one of about 30,000 people in Canada who is a childhood cancer survivor. What helped you most during your struggle?

Number one is God. My faith got me through the pain and the “not knowing”. As much as the right kind of food, treatment, and rest helps, I had to leave it up to a higher power to lead me through the ordeal. This experience certainly opened my eyes to really understand God’s love and how much strength and hope one can draw from a relationship with God.

A close second is my family, both my immediate family here in Canada and all my relatives that were praying for me in Peru. Their support was phenomenal and helped me see it through.

Why did you choose to train at SickKids?

SickKids is the hub of medical discovery. It is an excellent place to be mentored and to grow as a researcher, both in knowledge and understanding. Another thing that drew me to SickKids is how collaboration is fostered both within and outside of the scientific community. Lastly, this is where exciting research projects are applied each and every day. My work doesn’t just stay in the lab, it has the chance to transform into the clinic. Knowing this drives me to work hard and to keep at it!

What are you researching right now?

My focus is on brain tumours, specifically a type called choroid plexus carcinoma. There are two branches to my research. First I am looking to identify dysregulated genes that are unique to the tumour but not the normal brain beside it. By identifying these unique genes, molecular techniques can be used to produce drugs that will affect only the tumour and not the healthy brain tissue around it. This is already a reality in breast cancer treatment.

The second branch focuses on identifying diagnostic markers. Again, I look for dysregulated genes but this time I am comparing them between tumour subtypes, which are sometimes misdiagnosed. By using molecular diagnostic tools we can complement what is currently being used to classify brain tumours with greater accuracy.

What is the best part of your day?

That is a hard question to answer. Experiencing and surviving cancer changes the way you see the world. Every day I wake up with joy in my heart just to be alive!  I do love when I cross the Humber River during my commute in to Toronto. At that point the view of the cityscape becomes visible across the water and it is stunning. Starting my day at work is another thing I look forward to because I am able to do something that I love so much.

What do you like to do with your free time away from the lab?

I like to sing, read, cook, and spend time in nature. Volunteering at Camp Ooch, both in Muskoka and at the camp based out of SickKids, is very fulfilling for me. It’s also a lot of fun! This summer I was a counsellor to a group of young boys. They didn’t know I had survived cancer until one day we were jumping into the lake. They noticed my scar, one that they recognized because it comes from treatment through something called a port. Their eyes widened. “You had cancer?” they asked with disbelief. I laughed and said yes. They were excited and able to see that one can grow up to be what they want to be – not be constrained by the fact that they have cancer.

What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?

I am really anticipating the opening of the centre in 2013. SickKids is already avant-garde in science collaboration and the new building will take that even further. I think the tower itself represents much more than the research that will take place inside. It represents everyone who has invested in the project– all the people who have donated in one way or another. It also represents the future of paediatrics and the kids in Canada and around the world who will benefit from advancements in child health research. Researchers can be motivated by all the new infrastructure and technology that will be available in order to reach even higher heights.