Sarah Sterner can recount the first time she met Roger Daltrey, lead singer of the classic rock band The Who.
She had gotten tickets to see the band in October 2009, and Sterner’s father had written on the band’s blog about arranging a meeting between his daughter and The Who at its concert. Two months earlier, at age 15, Sterner had been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.
Daltrey quickly connected with Sterner, a Georgia native, through his efforts and those of fellow band member Pete Townshend to start a teen and young adult cancer program in the United States. It was a project they had been working on for nearly a decade.
Sterner, who was experiencing life as a teenage cancer patient in a pediatric ward, said she dreamt of the place Daltrey spoke of, where she would not hear babies crying in the next room or see toddlers running down the hall. She joined the project.
Now, more than two years later, the shared dream is materializing at UCLA. Daltrey, along with Sterner and Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, announced on Friday the UCLA Daltrey/Townshend Teen and Young Adult Cancer Program, devoted strictly to treating 15- to 25-year-olds with cancer.
The center will be located on the third floor of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, which is currently part of the pediatrics unit, said David Feinberg, CEO of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. The project is expected to be finished in six months, after about $1 million of remodeling, he said.
The program, the first of its kind in the nation, is based on similar programs in the United Kingdom. The Teenage Cancer Trust has established 16 units across the UK.
Since the start of the university’s involvement in 2010, the program has moved quickly, said Jacqueline Casillas, an associate professor of pediatrics at UCLA and director of the program.
At a party for a mutual friend, Daltrey asked Feinberg if UCLA “did teen cancer,” and they began talking about teen cancer programs.
“Then I realized (Daltrey) knew more about teen cancer than we did,” Feinberg said.
The first meeting at UCLA to get the project underway was in February 2010, Casillas said.
UCLA sent a team to England in June 2010 to tour units in the Teenage Cancer Trust, Casillas said. The team included Mike Pena, 28, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 23 years old and received all of his treatment at UCLA under Casillas.
At the announcement for the center, Daltrey, clad in a leather jacket and blue glasses, said The Who owes its success to teenagers ““ the age group that bought its records and propelled the band to fame.
“Teenagers made my career,” Daltrey said, smiling at Sterner. “I want to give back.”
These adolescents, however, are also the most likely to be diagnosed late with cancer, Daltrey said. Between playing sports and stress, teens’ medical claims are often dismissed, he said.
When they are diagnosed, young adults are either placed in a pediatric cancer ward or an adult cancer ward. But these departments rarely meet the needs of teenagers, Casillas said.
“We never noticed, never observed that this age group are not children, and they are certainly not adults. They are completely different,” Daltrey said. “And they get the rarest, most aggressive cancers of all.”
On Friday, Daltrey showed cancer patients and survivors, including Sterner and 14-year-old Xylina Ramirez, mock-ups of the center.
Bright colors, posters of guitars and sunset murals adorned the walls, and a pool table was positioned in the middle of a communal room.
Ramirez, who was treated at UCLA and is now in recuperation, has provided input in designing the center. She will celebrate her 15th birthday in two weeks.
“(The center) will help take your mind of off things ““ the pool table, the kitchen,” she said. “I think the kitchen is awesome.”
The program will provide a distinct environment for teen cancer patients that will address the peer support and independence that young adults desire, Casillas said.
It will help young adults get the treatment they need without feeling isolated from their age group, she said.
The program will bring together teams of pediatric oncologists, medical oncologists, psychiatrists, social workers and educational specialists to treat teens, Casillas said.
But the teen program will not cost anything additional for patients and their families, Daltrey said.
Daltrey and Plant held concerts on Saturday in Los Angeles to raise money for the project. A portion of each ticket sold for The Who’s Tommy tour also went toward the center, Daltrey said.
In addition to a more appropriate environment for young adults, the program will work with UCLA pediatric and medical oncology centers to further research in the area of teen cancer, Casilla said.
Having spent the majority of her treatment in a pediatric cancer unit, Sterner said a teen cancer program is needed for young adults.
On her first stay in the hospital, two clowns with a ukulele and spoons came into her room. This was too juvenile for Sterner, a professed “rock ‘n’ roll girl,” and was her first exposure to the need for separate hospital units.
She said teens should not have to settle for their hospital environment.
“I stand here 18 months cancer-free, and I don’t think I would have been able to do it without even the dream of (the teen cancer program),” Sterner said on Friday.
The program hopes to extend its reach to 25- to 30-year-olds in the future, Casillas said. She said that age group still needs treatment different than that of older patients with cancer.