Episode 23: Navigating pediatric brain cancer as a mom and cancer researcher, trusting motherly instinct and how best to support kids with cancer with Dr. Gayatri Gowrishankar

Dr. Gayatri Gowrishankar, a cancer researcher, talks about how her professional life collided with her personal life when her daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After a number of confusing symptoms, Gayatri followed her motherly instinct when she felt something wasn’t right with her daughter’s health. Dr. Gowrishankar talks about what her daughter remembers about her experience at the age of 9,  the power of positivity for kids with cancer, and reaching out for support as a caregiver. She also talks about ways to better the experience for childhood cancer patients in India.

About our guest

Dr. Gayatri Gowrishankar is a research scientist deeply invested in the business of diagnosing diseases. After being awarded a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Hannover, Germany, she moved to California to continue her postdoctoral studies in the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford University where she was introduced to the power of using molecular information to diagnose complex diseases like cancer. She stayed on at Stanford University as a Research Scientist under the mentorship of the late Professor Sanjiv Sam Gambhir who was a pioneer in the field of Molecular Imaging and laid the foundations for early detection programs in Oncology. At Stanford, her work focused around developing novel diagnostic imaging agents, particularly positron emission tomography (PET) tracers for Oncology and Infectious Diseases. She has co-authored numerous scientific publications and participated in several scientific conferences. She is now working in the External Partnerships/Scientific affairs division of Visby Medical, a growing start-up in Silicon Valley with a mission of bringing diagnostics to the patients.

Watch the video of our episode on YouTube

  • 6 minutes:

    On the science behind and impact of PET scan imaging.

    They inject a radio-labeled glucose molecule, and it turns out that cancer cells have this attraction for glucose, so they eat up glucose. Cancer cells are continuing to grow, proliferate and divide, so they need energy and consume a lot of glucose. So that’s why they take up this glucose tracer. Then the patients go through the PET scanner and the area where the glucose has been taken up just lights up. And it turns out, it’s an exquisitely sensitive modality, or imaging technique, because it's able to pinpoint very small masses of cells all over your body. It tells you where all the cancer has spread in a patient.

  • 22 minutes:

    On the uncertainty before test results.

    I still remember going back to the car after the doctor’s appointment, and my husband was waiting and said, “You know she's just not eating. There's nothing wrong with her.” But at this point I think the mother’s instinct kicked in. I think all the mother’s listening in will identify because you know when there is something really wrong. You know when there’s a simple thing like a scrape and they just need a bandaid. But you know when something’s not right with your child.

  • 41 minutes:

    On reaching out for emotional support as a caregiver.

    In my case, I was a staff scientist at Stanford, and Stanford has a staff health center. You can book a session with a counselor to talk about anything. You can talk about work. You can talk about grief. So I made use of that because I felt like I needed to talk to someone. And it was hard to talk to my husband because we were both so emotional, and we would just break down talking to each other. So I had to reach out for help.


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