Dance Marathon: Working for cancer cure


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Inside the purple, blue, and green walls of the UI Children’s Hospital clinic, Sue O’Dorisio strides through the halls grinning as she enters one of her patient’s rooms.

Although O’Dorisio, the director of fellowships in the UI Hospital and Clinics’ pediatric division of hematology and oncology, deals with concerned families and serious illnesses every day, she doesn’t let the bad times outweigh the good.

“Overall, we do well,” she said. “We really have an opportunity to do good things.”

O’Dorisio — or “Dr. O” as many of her patients call her — said she chose the pediatric cancer field because she loved working with kids and thought a cure for cancer wouldn’t be far off.

“We haven’t got that far yet,” she said.

But that hasn’t stopped her and husband Thomas O’Dorisio, also an oncologist at the UIHC, from teaming up to study brain tumors in both adolescents and adults.

“I am most happy to be part of her efforts in treatment of children and adolescents with brain tumors because it is such an unexplored problem,” he said.

And though the O’Dorisios both have time-consuming occupations, he said, they still find time to spend with each other though they’re “working harder than ever.” With 41 years of marriage and 30 years of experience in her field under her belt, Sue O’Dorisio works from 70 to 80 hours per week — between the laboratory researching cancer and the clinic treating patients.

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She said it’s difficult to separate the two aspects.

“In the clinic, I see what the disease does to children, and it makes me frustrated about what we cannot do [to help them],” she said. “So I work harder in the lab.”

Cameron Kenagy, 19, from Bloomfield, Iowa, saw O’Dorisio’s hard work when he was first diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma — a kind of cancer in the bone or soft tissue — at age 10.

“Cancer didn’t mean much to me at the time,” he said. “My dad said I was going to get chemo, so I did.”

But around two years later, Cameron’s cancer came back.

O’Dorisio said after he was diagnosed for the second time, Cameron became one of the first patients with his type of cancer to undergo a bone-marrow transplant immediately after intense chemo therapy.

Cameron said O’Dorisio’s outlook made him feel at ease during the many visits he paid to the clinic.

“Sometimes when I would come up, I would feel worried, but Dr. O’s positive attitude made me feel as if things were going to be OK,” Cameron said.

O’Dorisio said: “Then, when things are over, I tell them how worried I was.”

On Jan. 28, Cameron celebrated being cancer-free for five years with O’Dorisio.

“The best part of my job is when we give a child her or his life back,” she said.

Her caring for patients is only part of the healing equation, she said.

The Dance Marathon volunteers who give their time to cancer patients and cancer research also have a part in the success of a patient, she said.

“When you spend time with kids, it gives them something else to think about besides doctors, medicine, and being sick,” O’Dorisio said. “It gives them hope.”

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