How serendipity sent this oncologist in search of a cure for cancer

Dr Hugo De La Peña in front of University Hospital Southampton

In cancer research, serendipity is a frequent phenomenon.

The cervical smear, the origins of radiotherapy as well as various forms of chemotherapy – happened upon and welcomed as some of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries.

But oncologist, Dr Hugo De La Peña found that fate intervened well before he reached the lab. Here, the face of our latest TV advert explains how a second chance at life led to a career dedicated to curing cancer.

Diagnosis led to the unthinkable

Growing up in Mexico, Hugo was just 13 years-old when he developed symptoms that would lead to a devastating diagnosis of lymphoma.

He faced a poor prognosis, and he and his family took on what they thought would be the biggest challenge of their lives.

Hugo, now 44, said: “I was given a horrible, brutal diagnosis and I realised how much cancer affects not only you as a patient but your family too.

“The people around you feel completely powerless. They can be there to support you but they can’t help you.

“Ultimately you will deal with it, but it is very difficult for your family and the people that love you.

“The treatments then were not what they are today, and I went to the United States with my parents to buy the chemo that they hoped could save their son.”

As Hugo was preparing to have his spleen removed and start his chemotherapy, an eleventh-hour pathology review led to the unthinkable.

Hugo had been misdiagnosed.

He had in fact developed Kikuchi’s disease, which mimics lymphoma in its entirety but is non-cancerous.

Hugo said: “Being told I didn’t have cancer was without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best days of my life. Not so much for me but for my family because I could see what an impact the ‘cancer diagnosis’ had had on everybody around me.

“When I saw the relief it gave my parents, I knew I wanted to be able to tell others that they were ‘cancer free’. I decided then, I was going to study medicine as a means to an end: to cure cancer.”

Career path dictated by fate

Unlike some of his peers who took time to select a specialism, fate had dictated Hugo’s career in oncology, and it is one in which he has excelled.

Finishing top of his class in medical school, Hugo was offered the chance to complete a PhD anywhere in the world and chose to study cancer genetics and immunotherapy in the UK.

“I started off doing cancer research in London and Cambridge, which was almost all funded by charities such as CRUK. I then completed my clinical cancer training in Oxford and headed to Southampton three years ago as it has one of the best immune-oncology centres in Europe.”

Now the consultant father-of-three treats breast cancer patients at University Hospital Southampton and Salisbury District Hospital.

Dr De La Peña with Marrianne in our TV advert

“Some cancers happen for no reason at all. Breast cancer is often like that, it is just bad luck,” he said. “That degree of unfairness makes my blood boil and that’s why I do what I do.

“Because of research, we are in a great position now to treat patients because we have so many options. We aim to cure every patient if we can, but if we can’t, we have to make cancer a chronic disease, not a death sentence, and clinical trials help us do just that.

“Often you only have one chance to cure cancer and you have to throw everything at it, including the kitchen sink, and that is why trials are so important.

“We encourage every patient to participate in them if they’re available because the least you will get is the best current standard of care, but you could find yourself being offered the latest and best treatment.

We are cancer’s kryptonite

The successful outcome of a trial forms part of our emotional TV advert featuring Hugo and his patient, mum-of-two Marrianne.

He was filmed sharing the news that her tumour had “melted away” after taking part in the PARTNER clinical trial, supported by us.

“Telling people they have been cured from cancer is the most amazing feeling money cannot buy,” Hugo said.

“We see our patients every three weeks over several months and we get to know them really well and bond. So, when their cancers melt away, it’s just incredible. There is nothing better.”

In the eyes of his patients Hugo is a superhero – bringing together decades of research from bench to bedside to save lives. But he knows there’s still plenty more to be done.

Hugo believes: “Cancer is not invincible, we are its kryptonite.”

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