If you were diagnosed with leukemia as a child in the 1970’s, your estimated five year survival rate was just 48 percent. Now the survival rate has almost doubled. While cancer care in the young population has come a long way, there is still much to learn about pediatric cancers.
Childhood cancer is different.
One misconception of childhood cancer is that it is the same as adult cancer.
“Pediatric tumors are genetically different than adult tumors, they behave differently, and respond to medicines differently,” explains Jean Mulcahy-Levy, MD, investigator at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. “It is important to realize that we are not just treating a little person.”
Essentially, if a child is diagnosed with leukemia they cannot be treated like an adult that is diagnosed with leukemia. The only commonality that they may share is the name. The treatment for each is most likely very different.
Treatment is different
When treating a pediatric cancer patient there are many factors that their care team must take into consideration. Unlike treating an older patient with cancer, children still have an entire life in front of them. This includes things like going to school, getting a job, getting married and having kids. When creating a treatment plan for a young child doctors must keep these things in mind.
“There is a huge focus in pediatric oncology in reducing late-term effects from treatment,” says Mulcahy-Levy. “A lot of research is focused on improving therapies while maintaining survival rates and quality of life.”
Late term effects from cancer treatment may include a higher risk of cancer in the future, learning difficulties or disabilities and physical disabilities. In some cases future fertility could be affected.
“We not only want to cure the kids but cure them with as limited complications as possible so that they can eventually live a normal life,”says Mulcahy-Levy.
Cancer effects the whole family
A pediatric cancer diagnoses can be devastating for not only the patient but the entire family. Because families with young children tend to be more intertwined compared to older patients, the diagnosis can have a significant impact on the parents and siblings.
“Parents are making decisions that may affect their child for the rest of his or her life,” says Mulcahy-Levy. “There can be a lot of guilt if something goes wrong or if their child has a bad response.”
In order to make sure families are getting the support they need there are many options available to them as they through cancer treatment. For example there are social workers that specialize in certain diseases to ensure that each patient and family are getting their needs met. There are also sibling support groups that helps brothers and sisters of the patient understand what is going on and cope. Parents also are referenced to adult support groups.
“One of the most popular support programs we have for the patient is an art therapy program,” explains Mulcahy-Levy. “The program helps kids want to go to the clinic instead of dreading it.”
Because many of the support programs are not covered by insurance local groups have stepped in to make sure patients and families get the care they need. One of the most prominent groups is Wheels of Justice. Created by a group of local lawyers in 2005 and now a combination of lawyers, doctors, nurses, cancer survivors and friends, Wheels of Justice rides throughout the Rocky Mountains to raise money for the wellness programs at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Research changes everything
As with any cancer, research is essential to learn more about the disease and how to fight it. Childhood cancer only receives 4 percent of government funding whereas adult cancer research receives about 60 percent.
“Unfortunately childhood cancers tend to be underfunded because they are rare,” says Mulcahy-Levy. “However, approximately 13,500 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year. For those kids research can make all the difference.”
One significant difference that research is making is the ability to design a care plan specifically for the patient. Precision medicine and targeted therapies are gaining traction in pediatric oncology.
“We want to make sure each patient is only getting what they need, especially if it is toxic chemotherapy,” explains Mulcahy-Levy. “Research helps us continue to design new therapies and increase the quality of life for the kids.”