A Survivor's Story

USF Pre-Med Student Beats Brain Cancer, Graduates with Honors



By Daylina Miller


TAMPA, Fla. – For Darren Klawinski, graduating from USF’s Honors College with a 3.96 GPA was not just a personal achievement, but a “told you I could do it” after surviving brain cancer as a child and being told by doctors he’d have lingering learning disabilities.


Instead, he’s on his way to medical school with plans of becoming a pediatric oncologist.


In November 2000, Klawinski was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 12.


The doctor ordered the MRI on a Friday. The results were back by Monday -- medulloblastoma, a rare, childhood tumor. A week later, Klawinski was having surgery to remove the peach-sized tumor at the base of his cerebellum that doctors said grew in just six to eight weeks.


“Initially, I was scared to death,” Klawinski said. “When you’re an adult, getting told you have cancer is hard to process but it’s even harder to process for a child. The only thing I knew about cancer was that people fought it, they were miserable and they died.”


Aside from the tumor, doctors removed a piece of Klawinski’s cerebellum, just to make sure they got all of the cancer. That part of the brain controls motor skills, coordination and ability to walk, leaving Klawinski temporarily impaired.


But after a couple months of assisted walking, Klawinski learned to compensate and regain his motor skills. The only evidence now of that trauma: a strange wear patterns on the bottoms of his shoes.


Klawinski underwent 30 consecutive days of radiation treatment after the surgery, making the two-hour drive from his home in Indiana to the hospital every day. Ten months of chemotherapy followed, making him tired and sick.


Klawinski missed almost half of seventh grade but was still allowed to move on to eighth grade where he attended half days his first semester because of the effects of the treatments on his health.


“Children are resilient,” Klawinski said. “The good thing about me having cancer is just the fact that I was so young when I had it.”


Klawinski received his degree in biomedical science and starts medical school on June 1 at Florida State University with plans to become a pediatric oncologist.


“I want to work with kids,” Klawinski said. “When I had cancer, all one of my doctors could tell me was that I may have learning disabilities. He had no skills with children. I want to be able to tell them they can make it out on the other side just fine and become a doctor.”


“I can’t do anything differently that doctors do now to treat patients but the way I interact with them can be different,” Klawinski said.


While at USF, Klawinski spent more than 500 hours volunteering at the Moffitt Cancer Center, serving as the service chairman for the radiation therapy area. He was also a part of the center’s first student council group, helping to oversee the student volunteer program there.


“It’s not just a volunteer position,” Klawinski said. “You’re making a time commitment to the hospital. In radiation therapy, they counted on me coming in Tuesday afternoons to escort patients to the machines.”


At Moffitt, Klawinski has seen several patients come through with diminished hopes and negative attitudes towards radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors have more than just the responsibility of treating their patients- they have the responsibility to lift their spirits, Klawinski said.


“A lot of people, adults and kids, call it quits and say it’s too difficult for them,” Klawinski said.  “They can’t see anything but what it’s costing them to go through this, emotionally, physically and economically. People at Moffitt on radiation just get so down. I think I’d be the best doctor to go through if you want to maintain a positive attitude.”


As of November of this year, Klawinski will have been cancer-free for 10 years. But the radiation and chemotherapy treatments have made him more sensitive to light and have exposed him to two lifetimes worth of sun, Klawinski said.


But forgoing frequent trips to the beach is worth being well, Klawinski said. When he does go out in the sun, he takes precautions to keep himself safe from the harmful rays.


“I always put on sunscreen and wear a hat and collared shirt so I don’t get any sun on my head and neck,” Klawinski said.




The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.