UCLA Today

Rock luminaries give back to their fan base by creating UCLA center for teens with cancer

British rocker Roger Daltrey of The Who expressed gratitude to UCLA for launching a cancer program that focuses on teens' unique needs.
There were hints that this wasn’t just any news conference.
 
The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” played loudly from a hefty set of speakers. Digital cameras flashed, and video cameras rolled amidst a sea of reporters from Rolling Stone and rock radio stations, the L.A. Times and TV news. And up on the dais, British rockers Roger Daltrey of the Who and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant took turns at the microphone with Dr. David Feinberg, president of the UCLA Health System, CEO of the UCLA Hospital System and associate vice chancellor for health sciences at UCLA.
 
Daltrey and Plant, on campus yesterday in the Tamkin Auditorium of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, announced the establishment of a new program to serve the unique needs of teen and young-adult cancer patients — from improved diagnoses to a “cool” environment that offers them peer support and a sense of belonging. Daltrey and Plant, along with The Who’s Pete Townshend (who was unable to attend), say they owe much of their musical success to teenagers. 
 
The UCLA Daltrey/Townshend Teen & Young Adult Cancer Program will be located at the medical center and directed by Dr. Jacqueline Casillas, an associate professor of pediatrics and a member of the Jonsson Cancer Center.
 
Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.
The first of its kind in the United States, the program will build on the United Kingdom’s successful Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT), which has helped fund 19 special teen cancer units in that country. Before these teen-specific units were started, teens hospitalized with cancer often were placed in either a pediatric unit — surrounded by crying babies and toddlers — or in an adult unit filled with very ill elderly patients.
 
Said Daltrey: “The medical profession never observed that these patients are not children, and they certainly aren’t adults. Teenagers don’t really mix with anyone other than themselves.” For teens coping with a serious illness, he said, the sense of isolation can be devastating.
 
UCLA’s special hospital unit will be a comforting environment where young people stay in adjoining patient rooms arranged around a common lounge so they can provide emotional support for each other. The units are designed to provide as normal a life as possible, helping these young adults cope with grueling treatments and lengthy hospital stays.
 
Daltrey also noted that teens and young adults are often misdiagnosed early on, with doctors too often mistaking aches and bumps as sports injuries or symptoms of stress. When finally diagnosed, they are often found to have some of the more rare, aggressive cancers, such as Hodgkins lymphoma.
 
Peter Townshend in a video message.
“Cancer is the number-one killer of teenagers,” said Daltrey. “They get the rough end of the lollipop all around. We should see that they are individuals,” he said, and treat them “with respect and dignity.”
 
Daltrey, who has been seeking a U.S. hospital site for the program for several years, serendipitously connected with Feinberg a couple of years ago after a UCLA fundraising concert where Daltrey had performed.
 
When Daltrey told him about the TCT program, Feinberg recalled, he told him, “We should be doing that.” Soon UCLA sent a team to visit TCT. Then the U.K group sent a team to UCLA, and a collaboration was born.
 
Plant, in remarks that echoed Daltrey’s passion for the program, said that millions of dollars have been raised for TCT by The Who's fundraising initiative, Who Cares, with a series of all-star concerts that have grown into one of the most highly revered and anticipated annual music events in the world. In addition, a portion of each ticket sale from Daltrey's current "Tommy" tour in Canada and the U.S. will be donated to the new UCLA program.
 
A rendering of the teen center's lounge.
In a pre-recorded video, Townshend thanked Feinberg and UCLA for the opportunity to bring their program to America. “Let’s just hope that at UCLA it can catch fire in the same way (that it has in the U.K.).  It can really save lives.”
 
Casillas, who was part of the fact-finding team that traveled to the U.K., said she is optimistic that the new center will help improve outcomes for teens and young adults with cancer.
 
“We have made tremendous progress in treating cancer for children and adults, but not for teens and young adults,” she said. “Why is this? One reason is — just like Roger said — a delay in diagnosis,” with potentially deadly results.
 
And when teens do get diagnosed, she added, “they don’t get their needs met on multiple levels. Cancer hits them at a unique time in their developmental trajectory. They want peer support. They want independence from their families.”
 
The new program will bring together multidisciplinary teams of oncologists along with psychologists and social workers to provide emotional support for teens and their families. Educational specialists will also take part, Casilla noted, “because often one of the first questions teens ask us is not ‘Am I going to live or die?’ but ‘When can I get back to school?’”
 
Also speaking at the conference was 28-year-old Mike Pena, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 23 and treated at UCLA under Casillas’ care. He relapsed and endured a lengthy hospital stay while undergoing a stem cell transplant. Cancer-free for about two years, he was part of the team that visited the teen cancer centers in the U.K.
 
“People don’t really like teenagers,” Pena said. “They talk back. They have attitudes. They worry about things like, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’”  Teen-focused cancer programs, he said, make a very difficult situation “easier by creating a sense of belonging … by making it a humanizing experience.”
 
Pena and other teens contributed to design concepts for UCLA’s new center, which will include a lounge furnished with comfortable couches and a pool table. And already the UCLA center has one piece of wall art: a sleek electric guitar autographed by Daltrey and Plant.
 
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