Turning Pain into Progress
by Guest Author
Meet Sheena Reddy: A woman honors her mother’s fight against glioblastoma cancer while helping others.
BY SANDI DRAPER / PHOTOGRAPHED BY ALISON YIN
from Saint John’s Magazine, Winter 2021
Sheena Reddy knows heartache and loss, having watched her mother, Shobha, lose her three-year battle with glioblastoma at age 60 in August 2019. No one would have thought twice if Reddy had withdrawn from life for a while to mourn her mother’s passing. But instead, the Sunnyvale, CA woman created a fundraiser in her mother’s honor that raised more than $100,000 to benefit the research of Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, of Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
“It started with something as simple as suggesting donations to Dr. Kesari’s research in lieu of flowers after mom passed,” Reddy recalls. Next, she created a website (reddi2workout.org) honoring her mom and her work as a longtime Bay Area fitness guru to women of South Asian heritage. “I included a donations page, and donations started streaming in.”
That was just the beginning. Reddy emailed her mother’s friends and clients shortly after her mother’s memorial service, and about 100 of them participated in a walk-a-thon in San Jose, raising $7,000. Reddy and her father were Shobha’s primary caregivers during those three difficult years of treatments. It was an arduous journey for the entire family, and to begin recovering, Sheena took a road trip with a friend. They brought along Glio, a stuffed penguin wearing a gray ribbon for brain cancer awareness that had belonged to her mother.
“It was like my mom was with me and she could see those sites with me,” says Reddy, 34, who describes her mom as a real firecracker. To encourage donations, Reddy sent postcards and emails featuring travel photos of Glio with a link to her donation page.
Reddy also encouraged people to donate through their companies, like Google and Apple, to take advantage of corporate matching programs. “Within a few months, we had topped $85,000,” she says. Given the fundraiser’s momentum, Reddy raised the goal to $100,000. Then, COVID-19 hit, and Reddy felt she shouldn’t continue asking for donations during such trying times. Yet she wasn’t about to give up on her goal. “Saint John’s had done so much for my family; we owed them a debt of gratitude. We wanted to be able to help patients,” says Reddy.
Over the summer, on the anniversary of her mother’s birthday, Reddy started a new job at Stanford Health Care on the Digital Health Care Integration team. She donated her signing bonus to her mother’s legacy fund, pushing it over the $100,000 mark. “Sheena is an amazing human being,” Dr. Kesari says. “She turned her family tragedy into a positive cause to help others suffering from brain tumors. Her energy and fundraising motivates our team to do better and helps us continue our mission of finding a cure for brain cancers and improving quality of life.”
Dr. Kesari plans to use the funding to continue his team’s efforts in optimizing immunotherapy and targeted therapy for brain cancers including the next version of the Precision Immunotherapy in the Neoadjuvant Setting (PIN) study.
Praising Brain Tumor Clinical Trial Research at PNI
Reddy praises the clinical trial research that extended her mother’s life. When the family first sought care in the Bay Area, they were given little hope and offered no additional options after Shobha reacted poorly to her treatment. Reddy searched online for clinical trials, and read about a MDNA55 study from Medicenna Therapeutics, which Dr. Kesari was supervising.
Dr. Kesari encouraged them to come to Saint John’s to be screened. Shobha’s tumor size was just beyond the limit to qualify for the clinical trial, which involved surgery and injection of MDNA55, a toxin that targets glioblastoma cells. Though she was rejected by the trial, Dr. Kesari believed her to be a good candidate and appealed the decision twice, but was denied. Never one to give up, he made a request to the Food and Drug Administration for “compassionate use,” a program that allows investigational medicines to be administered to patients with immediate, life-threatening conditions. It was approved.
“That gave my mom two more years,” Reddy says. “Dr. Kesari was always available by text. I could be very open with him. He’d consider everything you say; he’d read anything you’d send him. His entire team went above and beyond for my family.”
Through her mom’s experience, Reddy says finding doctors who are a good fit is crucial. “As challenging as our situation was, we felt positivity and hope every time we went to Saint John’s. We will always remember Saint John’s for the caring and generosity they showed my mom.”
About Dr. Santosh Kesari
Dr. Kesari is a world-renowned neuro-oncologist with extensive experience treating all types of malignant brain tumors with particular emphasis on gliobastomas. A physician-scientist and recipient of Castle Connolly’s TopDoctor Award, he and his team conduct leading-edge research and clinical trials in immunotherapy and biomarker-based therapies.
Last updated: February 23rd, 2021