Seven years ago, Eugene (Gene) Hwang, M.D., chose to join Children’s National Health System, becoming a part of our internationally-renowned Brain Tumor Institute. Coming to Children’s National gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion: researching rare cancer diagnoses that need more attention, while focusing his clinical practice on children with brain tumors. Since coming to Children’s National, Dr. Hwang has worked to improve the lives of brain tumor patients as a neuro-oncologist in our Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.
Changing the Way We Treat Cancers
Dr. Hwang is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and expands on his role as a clinical neuro-oncologist by pursuing new and innovative treatments for pediatric brain cancer, primarily by designing and running clinical trials and by collaborating in consortiums with other doctors and scientists. “As we learn more about brain tumors, we’re realizing that these already-rare cancers have many subsets that impact how they grow and respond to treatment. We need to work together, through national and international consortiums, in order to meaningfully study these tumors and find the cures which have eluded us for decades,” Dr. Hwang says. Although Dr. Hwang’s clinical trials include targeted molecular treatments, he has a particular focus in immunotherapeutics and is currently leading several trials that are testing ways to activate the immune system against brain cancer.
However, Dr. Hwang and his colleagues are not only dedicated to finding a cure for cancer, but also to making the current treatments as safe as possible for children. “We often focus on just curing the children – that’s the number one goal – but we also need to pay attention to the toxicity of these treatments and what quality of life the children will have after treatment,” he says. Dr. Hwang is involved in several efforts to study how to best mitigate the side effects of treatment.
In the meantime, Dr. Hwang makes sure he’s doing everything he can to combat pain, dizziness, fatigue and other common side effects of cancer treatments by leveraging the multi-disciplinary team approach of Children’s National. He sees this as something our organization does exceptionally well, and thinks that having so many people focus on a single patient in a single visit is crucial to well-being during cancer treatments.
Reminders of Why We’re Moving Medicine Forward
Despite being so involved with research, Dr. Hwang says he will never give up seeing patients. He sees the face-to-face interactions as his chance to help families during an extremely difficult time in their lives. “When you meet them, their world is shattered with a cancer diagnosis. It’s a challenging time to get to know someone. But, this is a time that these children and their families are uniquely despairing. I see this as a time that I know I can make an incredible difference for these kids, if only by an understanding that they have become a part of our family, and that we will fight every step of this journey, together.
Some of Dr. Hwang’s best experiences at Children’s National have been formed around the patients that he’s treating, as well as patients receiving treatment from other providers. “Making a connection with the patients is why I do what I do. Seeing our patients and their families rise up to challenge their cancer diagnosis and focus on the important parts of their lives – the parts that they love most – that is what this work is about.”
As a father to two daughters, Dr. Hwang is able to pull from his personal experience in connecting with patients of all ages. Whether it is chatting about a cartoon his daughters have enjoyed, rooting for his Washington Redskins over a patient’s beloved Eagles, or even learning a few card tricks to transport patients even for a moment, Dr. Hwang makes it a point to have the first few minutes of any interaction with patients focus on something other than why they are at the hospital. “Cancer is a terrible thing. In a child, your child, it is the worst thing imaginable. But just having a diagnosis doesn’t mean a patient can’t laugh at a joke, dream about the future, or experience life.”
Dr. Hwang keeps a cork board of photos and art in his office, next to his desk. On this cork board, among artwork given to him by patients, are photos of many of his patients who have lost their battles to brain tumors and others who continue to fight. “Seeing this board reminds me of every one of these children, of their families and of the experiences that we shared and who they were. Every day it reminds me of why this work is so desperately needed, and of how far we still have to go.”