Education

Hope for Pediatric Cancer Patients

The stories and the accompanying images on social media are heartbreaking: A young child, just starting to live life, diagnosed with cancer and now fighting for that life.

Parents who are faced with the devastation of such news turn to their online community to seek emotional, spiritual and even financial support to ease the helplessness they feel – all while trying to remain strong and supportive of their ill child and other siblings.

“A pediatric cancer diagnosis is not easy for anyone involved,” said Doured Daghistani, M.D., medical director of pediatric hematology and oncology at Baptist Children’s Hospital and chief of pediatric hematology and oncology at Miami Cancer Institute. “But with new treatments available and a clearer understanding of how pediatric cancers behave, we’re seeing a shift from a ‘half-empty glass’ of hope to a ‘half-full’ one.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, the most common types of cancer in children, newborn to 14 years old, are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), brain tumors, and neuroblastomas, which are tumors found along the nerves of the sympathetic nervous system .

And while social media and awareness campaigns, such as National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, spotlight the victims and survivors of these cancers, Dr. Daghistani cites statistics that indicate these cancers are thankfully, he says, still rare. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 10,000 children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer this year, making up about 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Yet, because the overall population of the United States is increasing, the incidence of pediatric cancer has risen slightly over the past few decades. Still the National Cancer Institute reports that cancer death rates for children have declined by nearly 70 percent over the past 40 years.

‘Survival of the Survivors’

“As we continue to look for treatments that are helping improve survival rates of some of these cancers to 85 percent, like we’re seeing with acute leukemia, we must now look at preventing or minimizing the long-term toxicity of childhood cancer survivors, now in their 20s and 30s,” Dr. Daghistani said. “We’ve turned some attention to ensuring the ‘survival of the survivors’.”

The National Cancer Institute estimates that by 2010, there were about 380,000 survivors of childhood and adolescent cancer living in the United States. Moreover, that number is expected to increase as new treatments and a better understanding of how cancer develops are realized.

But, Dr. Daghistani points out that even with their cancer in remission, pediatric cancer survivors have risks for other health problems related to their cancer treatment later in life. These so-called “late effects” include secondary cancer, heart and lung problems, delayed growth, infertility and learning disabilities, according to the American Cancer Society. Researchers have traced these health conditions to chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the survivors’ battle with childhood cancer.

A Team of Support

At Baptist Children’s Hospital, an entire team of healthcare providers assists patients and their families from the moment a cancer diagnosis is discovered, through treatment and into survivorship, Dr. Daghistani notes.

“Our Pediatric Oncology Support Team consists of social workers to provide parents with resources to help them care for their child, psychologists and palliative care professionals to work through the grief aspect of a cancer diagnosis, child life specialists to help maintain a sense of normalcy for the child, and Pastoral Care and ancillary support to address other needs of patients and their family members,” he said. And beyond their treatment in the hospital, patients and their parents are educated about how to maintain a regular check-up schedule to ensure all health issues are discovered and dealt with as early as possible.

“I’ve already seen such progress in the treatment of pediatric cancer in my lifetime,” Dr. Daghistani said. “I’m hopeful that one day childhood cancer detection will be part of a newborn screening and a vaccine against it will be developed.”

In the meantime, he says, treatment advances like proton therapy, which will be available in South Florida when Miami Cancer Institute opens, will help improve the long-term survival of children diagnosed with cancer.

“Thankfully we have realized the importance of support and are continuing to develop new treatments,” he said. “Our cup of hope is half full.”

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