A Q&A with Dr. Laver about caring for patients with childhood cancer
A pediatric cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and life-changing. That’s when our team comes in, lifts families up and helps them along the way. When our doctors aren’t with patients and their loved ones, they’re entrenched in research in hopes that one day these diagnoses will be a little less scary and the cures less demanding.
Our team is led by Dr. Joseph Laver, chief of hematology/oncology and Children’s Hospital Foundation Endowed Chair in Pediatric Cancer Research – a one-of-a-kind expert in bone marrow transplantation who has dedicated his life’s work to curing childhood cancer.
In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Laver gives us a peek into his fascinating career and the world of caring for kids with cancer and blood disorders.
How long have you been a pediatric oncologist?
Since 1985, so 35 years…time flies.
Approximately how many patients have you cared for in that time?
I work with about 200 new patients a year, so that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 patients over my career thus far.
When and why did you decide this was the career for you?
It actually happened by serendipity. I initially thought I wanted to be an intensivist, or critical care physician. During my training in Israel, they needed a hem/onc specialist so I started down that path. Then I arranged for a hem/onc fellowship in the U.S. and continued from there.
I knew I wanted to be a doctor and that whatever I did, I wanted to do it well. Once I started learning more about the specialty of hematology and oncology, I liked it and flew with it. It was a good choice.
What are you most passionate about in your daily work?
For me, it’s all about having a positive impact on outcomes and survival. My motivation is a cure.
What are you most proud of in your career thus far?
It’s difficult for me to point at one thing. First, is curing patients. Getting the Christmas cards and wedding announcements of patients I’ve treated…I see that as a big accomplishment. Through the years I’ve also had the pleasure of training many doctors who have gone on to do great things. I also take my contribution to clinical and basic research very seriously. So, I’d say it’s my three-part role as clinician, teacher and researcher.
What do you want people to know about the hematology/oncology team at CHoR?
In medicine, tradition is very important and this team is built on a tradition of excellence. Our team is dedicated to the best outcomes and best service. This year, our approach was reinforced when we were recognized among the top 50 children’s hospitals for cancer care by U.S. News & World Report.
What are the benefits of CHoR being associated with VCU Massey Cancer Center?
Massey is the only center in the central Virginia and one of only two in the state designated to lead and shape America’s cancer research efforts. Through this collaboration, our pediatric patients have access to the latest research and clinical trials for new or experimental treatments that are not yet widely available. We also offer advanced treatments such as CAR-T therapy, bone marrow and stem cell transplant, etc.
You’ve cared for patients in hospitals throughout the U.S. and in Israel – where exactly?
I’ve had the privilege of providing medical care and meeting fantastic patients and colleagues at several institutions over the last few decades. I received my medical degree and completed my pediatric internship and residency in Israel. Then, I came to the U.S. to complete my training with a pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, followed by a pediatric research fellowship at Sloan Kettering Institute.
I began my career at Memorial Sloan Kettering and Cornell University Medical College, then served as the director of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation, and vice chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. After that is when I was introduced to CHoR and came here to be chairman of the Department of Pediatrics for eight years. I then had the opportunity to serve as the executive vice president and clinical director, and chief of clinical operations at St. Jude’s in Tennessee. Then I went on to the role of chief medical officer and professor of pediatrics at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York before returning to Israel to rebuild the pediatric hematology/oncology program at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.
That brings me to where I am today.
You previously led the medical team at CHoR as chairman of the Department of Pediatrics. Why did you decide to return to CHoR last year?
Fulfilling the vision of a new children’s hospital was a major attraction for me. This has been in the works for more than 30 years and I wanted to be a part of it. I also knew and liked Richmond from my time here before and was eager for the chance to return to a great city. There are some really exciting things on the horizon.
What are you most looking forward to about the new hospital?
This hospital gives us an opportunity to take care of patients in a very nurturing and healing environment, with services that cannot be surpassed anywhere else in the country. For the brightest future clinicians who are attracted to pediatrics, the new hospital will offer enhanced opportunities for research and training. Children are not small adults. They need specialized care and this environment designed just for them will raise all boats.
Where do you see the field of pediatric oncology in 10 years?
I’m not a prophet, but in my opinion the field is moving more and more into precision medicine. With the research advancements being made in cancer, blood diseases such as sickle cell and bone marrow transplant, I think precision medicine treatments will take over in many instances where chemotherapy has traditionally been used. This is exciting because rather than using a chemotherapy that attacks many organs, we may have more therapies that can specifically target the cancer – which should result in more effective treatment with fewer negative side effects.
What would you say to a child who was just diagnosed with cancer and their family?
I’ll tell you what I say to everyone – “It’s a serious disease, but we intend to make you better.”
When this hits families, they’re often confused and overwhelmed. I tell them the truth, that it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint – but we’ll be with them every step of the way. We keep in touch with patients for years and continue to follow up on the side effects of their pediatric cancer and cancer treatment, sometimes into their thirties.
What else do you think is important for people to know about caring for children with cancer?
It takes a village to take care of a child with cancer or a hematological disease – it’s not a one-person, or even a one-specialty, operation. Our team is made up of board-certified doctors who specialize in hematology and oncology, but we also collaborate with our colleagues across the spectrum of pediatric specialties – intensive care, cardiology, gastroenterology, etc. – depending on the needs of the individual child.
Our team also includes passionate and compassionate nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, social workers, child life specialists, educational consultants and others who make sure we focus on every aspect of a child’s life that is impacted by their disease. All of these people are under one roof and can be pulled together to provide the best care for the child. And, of course, we can’t forget about the families who are by their children’s side – night and day, at home, in clinic and in the hospital. It’s a strenuous journey for them and we make sure they know they aren’t in it alone. Our community partners also help ease the stress of a childhood cancer journey. ASK, Connor’s Heroes, CJSTUF, our Children’s Hospital Foundation and so many other groups help our teams and our families thrive.
Then there’s the science behind the care – new therapies, investigational drugs and clinical trials that are continually evolving and make the field even more exciting, and the future bright and promising.