Yasmin Khakoo is a pediatric neurologist and neuro-oncologist who directs the Child Neurology Program at MSK Kids.
Tell us about your path to becoming a physician.
I was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents — one from India and the other from East Africa — who were both physicians. I actually never wanted to be a doctor! I wanted to be a third-grade teacher. But in college I realized I was really good at science. I knew I wanted to work with children, so pediatrics was an easy choice. Neurology was actually not my favorite subject in medical school, but when I did my training, my mentor was a child neurologist who inspired me. He had so much energy and passion.
What do you love about working with kids?
Their curiosity and their resilience. They can go through really tough treatments and still be happy and playful. I teach them how their brains and bodies work so they become empowered to take care of themselves. That flash of learning you see in their eyes when they understand something is one of the most wonderful parts about working with children. Also, kids ask questions that are important to them, like, “Can my friend come over tomorrow?”
When a child is diagnosed with a brain tumor, it’s life changing. What do you tell parents?
There’s a rule of fives that I learned from one of my mentors: We take things by the next five minutes, then five hours, five days, five weeks, etc. So, when I first encounter a family, I always say, “Listen, we’re in the five-days part right now. Let’s just get through the next week.” Families always want to know, “Is my child going to be cured?” I ask them to try to remember that their child is unique. There’s no other child in the world with the same genetic makeup. Even if I give them statistics, their child’s body has its own playbook. My biggest hope is that they feel that we are a team and that they are in the best possible hands.
What treatments show promise?
There are a lot of new options for children with metastatic brain tumors. We know that medications that treat brain tumors in one site can also get to other sites of the brain. We know that some medications for the brain can also treat tumors in other areas of the body.
Have we learned anything from adult tumors that is useful for treating children’s brain tumors?
Children are not little adults. Their brains have not been exposed to as many environmental toxins, like air pollution or cigarette smoke, for as long as adults’. From that we’ve learned that children are better able to tolerate certain medications than adults are. We’ve also learned that children may actually need higher doses of medications because they are able to process them much faster than adults. And from what we’ve seen with adults, we now know that we can target the same molecules on tumors in both adults and children with similar medicines. That’s opened up a whole new world of treatments. There are medicines that we never would have thought to use in children.
You call yourself a “guardian of my patients’ nervous systems.” What do you mean by that?
My first goal is to treat and cure the child’s cancer. But just as important is giving them an excellent quality of life. I try to protect the child’s brain from any medication side effects, and thankfully for many of our treatments, they are minimal. I always tell families that I’m going to try to make their child the best they can be so that they can go back to school and be happy and healthy after treatment.
What have you learned from your patients?
My relationships with patients are a two-way street. I teach them about their cancer, and they teach me about their lives: their hopes, their dreams, what they’d like to do when they grow up. Those are really wonderful conversations to have in the midst of treatment.
What do you love most about practicing medicine?
I love that there’s always something to learn because everyone is made up differently, and every situation is unique. I love being at MSK because the people who work here are all 100% committed to helping make cancer a disease of the past. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you do this every day?” I don’t see myself doing anything else.