Packard Children’s cancer patient receives honorary degree from her caregivers

Three years ago, soon after Minal Patel started receiving treatment for an aggressive form of cancer, she informed her favorite oncologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford that she hoped to become an academic physician.

“I had no doubt you would do it,” the physician, EMILY JOHNSTON, told Patel recently. “You already had more scientific publications than I did.”

Minal Patel (center) was presented with an honorary medical diploma at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford after her cancer relapsed, derailing her plans to study medicine. Her care team includes (from left) nurse practitioner Nichole Mosher, pediatric oncologist Emily Johnston, pediatric oncologist Sheri Spunt and nurse practitioner Pam Simon.
Minal Patel (center) was presented with an honorary medical diploma at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford after her cancer relapsed, derailing her plans to study medicine. Her care team includes (from left) nurse practitioner Nichole Mosher, pediatric oncologist Emily Johnston, pediatric oncologist Sheri Spunt and nurse practitioner Pam Simon. (Photo: Erin Digitale)

Johnston, an instructor in pediatric hematology-oncology, recounted their conversation recently at a gathering in the Packard Children’s auditorium where she bestowed an honorary medical degree on 26-year-old Patel.

Earlier this year, Patel’s cancer relapsed; her prognosis is poor. The surprise ceremony was a way for her caregivers to acknowledge that although Patel cannot pursue her dream of becoming a physician, she has contributed to medicine by sharing her insights into what it’s like to be a young adult with cancer.

Patel’s mother, Priti Patel, and about 30 hospital staff members attended the celebration.

When Patel was diagnosed in 2014 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare, soft-tissue tumor, she was referred to Packard Children’s for treatment. The tumor usually strikes kids and teenagers, so although Patel was then 23, she needed pediatric care.

Rhabdomyosarcoma specialist SHERI SPUNT, professor of pediatrics in hematology and oncology, began working with Patel and Johnston, then a pediatric oncology fellow, to plan an intensive year of chemotherapy.

Patel told her physicians how her diagnosis had interrupted her path to medical school. She had earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of California-San Diego, where she worked as a research associate and co-authored the scientific papers that Johnston mentioned. She also was studying for her Medical College Admissions Test. She was eager to finish chemotherapy and return to her academic ambitions.

Read more about the courageously determined Patel, her caregivers and a special doctor-patient relationship.