A Conversation with The Who's Roger Daltrey about Teen Cancer Centers
How did you get involved with teenagers and young adults with cancer?
My doctor and his wife, Drs. Adrian and Myrna Whiteson, had the idea to set up the Teenage Cancer Trust in the early 1990s to create specialist treatment units for teens with cancer, and they enlisted me as a patron. Using the first rule of patient care—observation—they noticed that teenagers with cancer were suffering needlessly because the medical profession had failed to realize that teenagers aren’t children, and they’re certainly not adults. They are a completely separate group and need to be treated in an environment of their own that is teen friendly.
Eventually, I thought it was such a great idea that I decided to get more hands on. By 2000, the Trust had built six treatment units, and I got heavily involved after I learned that two of the six units were due to be pulled down because they were located in Victorian-era hospitals. It felt like we were going backward, in a way.
The Who did a 2-night charity show at the Royal Albert Hall with a lot of guests, including Eddie Vedder, Bryan Adams, Noel Gallagher, Kelly Jones, and Stereophonics. It was fabulous, and we gave the Teenage Cancer Trust the rights for the concert DVD and the live album. They made enough money to replace the two treatment units. The financial success of these shows was great, but the publicity generated was an added bonus for bringing the issue to the public’s attention in the U.K. The Trust was gaining a stronger profile, and we’re now in our 12th year of running these charity shows.
The Teenage Cancer Trust has to pay for every nut, bolt, brick, door, and window, as well as the furnishings, with the average cost now running at about $5 million. As of today, we’ve built 17 hospital wards within our National Health Service for teen and young adult cancer patients, with a further 10 wards under construction. It’s been a phenomenal success.
What is unique about these teen treatment centers?
We get teenagers involved in designing the centers. We make spaces for them to be quiet when they want to be quiet, noisy when they want to be noisy, in teenage-friendly surroundings. We have areas where they can carry on their studies, so they don’t fall behind in their schooling. There are kitchens where they can cook for themselves and facilities for parents—because, as you know, parents of cancer patients need an awful lot of support as well during this time.
Any parent who has had teenagers will tell you, the hardest thing to get teenagers to do is talk to you. There are high rates of misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of their cancers. They also suffer from very rare forms of cancer and the disease can be extremely aggressive, and so it’s a bad situation all around. They’re hammered with these diseases right at that stage of life where even a pimple on your nose is a disaster.
When you’re losing your hair or your leg or, even worse, your life, it's important to open up, but a lot of teenagers withdraw instead. When we put teens together, they really do support each other. They talk to each other very, very openly and honestly, and that’s a psychological boost. You can only get that by putting them together. They’re very secretive around adults. It’s part of the teenage process, isn’t it?
What impact have the centers had on young patients?
What is wonderful about our system in the U.K. is that, because we have nationalized medical care, everybody gets the same medical treatments, including the teens in our special units. We’ve now got figures over almost a 20-year period where we can compare the teenagers who went through our units to teenagers who were unfortunate enough not to have that access.
Members of the pediatric medical profession are finding that our teens appear to do better than teens outside our centers who receive the same treatments. That impact continues to be studied and, if it’s confirmed by more data, that improvement can only be due to the psychological benefit for the teens who are treated in our units.
How did you get involved in the UCLA teen cancer center?
About 2 years ago, I did a benefit for an autism charity in Los Angeles, where I met the head of the UCLA Health System, Dr. David Feinberg. I told him about my work with the Teenage Cancer Trust, and within 2 months they had a team from their hospital come to England. After thoroughly looking over our units, they said, “This is the gold standard for treating teens and young adults, and UCLA has got to have it.”
They made space available in the UCLA hospital to set up a unit. In November 2011, I performed at a concert with Robert Plant and Dave Grohl to raise the funds to furnish the facility.
I also had the pleasure of welcoming and meeting [the unit’s] first patients. I think it will be the first of many such centers in the United States. We’re already talking to medical center leaders at Yale University and Duke University. With the help of the American public and, I hope, more people in the music business—who rely on teenagers for a large part of their revenue—these facilities can be available to every teen and young adult in America.
—Interviewed by Bill Robinson
For more information on adolescent and young adult cancers, see the NCI Cancer Bulletin’s 2011 special issue on the topic.