Being treated for childhood cancer set Jason Schwartz on the path to his life’s work: treating childhood cancer
Cancer at the age of 13 forced him to give up his dream of professional football. While undergoing treatment, he found a new dream.September 27, 2023
Jason Schwartz. Photo by Susan Urmy.
At the ripe age of 13, Jason Schwartz made a life-changing decision.
Amid cancer treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), Schwartz was handed an incredible gift that would fuel his life’s work.
“I developed a great relationship with my tutor,” recalled Schwartz. “Dennis was his name. I remember that I didn’t always feel so great, and schoolwork was certainly not appealing in those moments. At the end of my time with Dennis, he asked me what grades I wanted.
“Well, of course I said straight A’s,” Schwartz chuckled. “It was a gift I needed to honor.”
Today Schwartz, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt is a physician-scientist caring for children with cancer.
“I was very angry. My life was being interrupted. I am guessing that my response was relatively typical for someone my age. I didn’t want to go. The diagnosis caught me off guard, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
He credits his career path to the three months he was hospitalized at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for chemotherapy treatments before returning home to Denham Springs, Louisiana, for weekly therapy. It was during that intense period of treatment that he not only met his tutor, but also came to the realization that he had a knack for asking critical questions and for figuring out the answers. The idea of entering the medical field really resonated with him.
“I took maintaining those straight A’s very seriously,” said Schwartz. “I developed a laser focus. I knew I had to in order to do what was necessary to get into medical school. My experience as a teenager is 100% why I chose to pursue medicine and specifically my specialty.”
It was a stark contrast to Schwartz’s attitude when he first learned he had cancer.
His memory of what transpired the day he was told about his diagnosis and traveling to Memphis are very clear.
“I was very angry,” Schwartz recalled. “My life was being interrupted. I am guessing that my response was relatively typical for someone my age. I didn’t want to go. The diagnosis caught me off guard, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
“I remember that it was really uncomfortable hearing something I didn’t really understand, so I work really hard to make sure patients and families grasp what I am sharing.”
Schwartz said at the time he “lived football.” Chemotherapy treatments threw a wrench into his continued development as a “star football player” squashing his dreams of becoming a professional football player.
Today, Schwartz admits that those aspirations for a football career were probably far-fetched.
Just as he had worked hard on the field, he began to put all of his energy into school and obtaining top grades. Interactions with his medical team only stoked his desire to ask questions and learn about his treatments.
“I decided that I wanted to be a part of learning something that could contribute to the knowledge of those ‘I don’t know answers’ that often arise when patients ask questions.
“With the ‘I don’t know’ lines, I try really hard to make sure parents and patients understand. I draw pictures and graphs. I use layman’s terms. I remember that it was really uncomfortable hearing something I didn’t really understand, so I work really hard to make sure patients and families grasp what I am sharing.”
After graduating from Louisiana College in 2004, Schwartz went on to earn a dual MD/PhD degree at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. He completed his residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and returned to St. Jude for a fellowship, followed by two years as an instructor-level faculty member.
He joined Monroe Carell in 2020.
As a physician scientist he studies inherited bone marrow failure syndromes and is committed to growing his research endeavors.
“I am hopeful that my own experience will be helpful in the future in trying to discover new things and treatments for patients,” he said. “I want to help worried parents and patients better understand what is going on.”