Keven Stonewall ’17 has plenty of options. Any path he chooses will be bright — and focused on saving the lives of countless people. But for right now, he’s not sure what, exactly, that will look like.
Stonewall has finished his undergraduate studies and is now back in his hometown of Chicago for medical school at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, preparing for a career at the forefront of cancer treatment and research.
Today, Stonewall is just measuring what the next move in his life will be. Will he go into pediatric oncology? Will he work with different adult forms of cancer? Will he focus on research or treatment of patients? Whatever he decides, he is determined to be a source of education for future generations.
“One of my current aspirations is to become an oncologist,” Stonewall says. “I want to do research and apply it to patients. Oncology has been the big presence in my life, and I want to continue to be an advocate for that. But I want to figure out what I want to do before I commit to one specialty. I’m about to shadow different doctors and learn different fields and confirm that this is what I want to do full time.”
Much of Stonewall’s life has been dedicated to cancer research. While in high school, he interned at Rush Hospital researching the role that age plays in cancerous tumor growth. Stonewall used mice to test the relationship between aging and the effectiveness of vaccines. He went to various conferences and science fairs to present his research and was published in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer. From there, it was on to UW–Madison.
But Stonewall has been driven by more than thirst for knowledge and education. It has also been a personal journey. “My first initial contact with cancer was when I was 14, and I had a friend whose uncle passed away, and it really hit me because my friend, he didn’t come to school anymore,” Stonewall says. “He was totally different. His whole energy changed. So I went up to him and asked him what was going on. He told me his uncle had died from cancer.”
Stonewall began Googling and researching what cancer is, and he soon found out how devastating the disease can be. “I learned about tumor growth, and I wanted to get involved,” he says. “So I Googled how to get involved to fight cancer. I saw nonprofits. I saw research labs. I wanted to be a pioneer in this field to develop better cancer treatments.”
At the UW, Stonewall began to study pathologies and cancer therapies, specifically how to treat osteosarcoma and neuroblastoma. Osteosarcoma is a bone cancer and neuroblastoma is a cancer that originates in adrenal glands and is most often found in children younger than five.
Stonewall, under the mentorship of UW assistant professor Christian Capitini, went to work trying to develop vaccines for these diseases. “I was working on reducing graft marrow bone disease when doing a bone marrow transplant,” says Stonewall. “Basically, the idea is, when I inject your bone marrow into someone else’s body, their body is going to respond to those T cells like they’re foreign bodies. So we want to reduce that response so that person’s body recognizes your cells as being okay. This is important because in cancer therapies, most of the time we tell people about doing radiation, chemotherapy, and things that come with big side effects. So I’ve been working on this to reduce that.”
Stonewall’s research and personal story have garnered some public and media attention. In 2014, he gave a TEDx Talk on the UW campus that received national attention, and in January 2018, he was named one of the top 35 millennial influencers by the Next Big Thing Movement. He has used these platforms to educate people, particularly young people, on how important it is to have cancer screening and the need to be informed about their health options if they do have a cancer diagnosis.
“I’ve been doing a lot of reflection,” he says. “It’s been such a privilege to have this opportunity because it inspires me to pass it forward. I want to be able to give insight on how people can move forward in therapies and treatment. I thought about my friend’s uncle. They didn’t know how to get screening. That’s really important. That’s my role — to be the change I want to see, to get out and inform communities. I think that’s a thing that drives me.”
Stonewall especially wants to focus on informing and supporting underserved communities. “I want to get involved with services here in Chicago,” he says. “That’s something I’m serious about. The south and west sides are underserved communities that need education to help prevent disease and cancer there. I want to enrich those communities and be a role model to let people know if I can do it, you can do it.”
Now in medical school, Stonewall is working to merge the two worlds he cares about most. Usually, some physicians treat patients while others focus on research. Stonewall wants to do both. He has done extensive research and developed a working tumor vaccine, but he wants to do more.
“I decided to go to med school because I wanted to also be able to provide care in addition to my research,” he says. “But I want to have the humanistic approach. I feel like being a doctor is a good way to continue research and also be able to help people going forward.”
Being back in Chicago has inspired him to reach out to communities in the Windy City that are underserved and haven’t traditionally been given the resources they need for health services.
After medical school, Stonewall says his plans are up in the air. He will learn hands-on from leading doctors in his field and will probably be involved with a residency after medical school, depending on what specialty he ultimately chooses.
“I have three years left. In 2022, I’ll be Dr. Stonewall!” he says, laughing. “It’s going to be a long journey, but I’m excited. It’s definitely a big transition from undergrad. Just connecting everything I’ve learned. It’s being able to apply knowledge. I’m loving every day of it.”