|The truth about kids and cancer
Author: Sara Rider
There are many things that keep parents up at night worrying about their children. But somewhere near the top of the list has to be the fear of childhood cancer. Nationally, childhood cancer is not as common as adult cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). This year, ACS estimates that just less than 12,000 children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer. And, according to ACS, childhood cancer rates have been on the rise for the past few decades — which may explain why many of us have either had a young family member who faced cancer or know friends and coworkers whose children have battled the disease.
According to Amy Fowler, M.D., who is affiliated with the Children’s Blood and Cancer Center at Dell Children’s Medical Center, the types of cancer that affect children are different than those that affect adults. “The types of cancer we see are frequently different than the ones we see in adults,” she explains. “Leukemia is most common by far, followed by brain tumors and lymphoma. Less commonly, we see different types of solid tumors, such as abdominal tumors.”
Other types of tumors in children can affect the eye, the head and neck and the kidneys, Dr. Fowler adds. “But children can also get bone tumors.”
What are the odds?
“Before the 1970s, childhood cancer was a devastating diagnosis,” admits Dr. Fowler. “It’s still a devastating diagnosis, but it’s a diagnosis with a much better chance for survival than before.” According to the ACS, treatment advances in the last 30 years have led to a survival rate of more than five years for more than 80 percent of children with cancer. This compares to a survival rate of less than 60 percent in the 1970s.
“Most children can survive a cancer diagnosis,” continues Dr. Fowler, “but it all depends on the type of cancer. Every cancer has a different protocol and a different type of treatment.” In general, childhood cancer is treated in one of three ways: through chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. The good news, according to the ACS, is that childhood cancers tend to respond better to treatments like chemotherapy, and children’s bodies often handle them better than adults’ bodies.
Another difference between childhood cancer and cancer in adults is that there aren’t many known causes for childhood cancer. Unlike adult cancers, which are tied to lifestyle or environmental risk factors more than 60 percent of the time according to the ACS, childhood cancers are often caused by DNA changes in cells that take place at a very young age and may even occur before birth. This lack of a known cause-and-effect-pattern can make it harder to predict who might get childhood cancer.
Early symptoms of childhood cancer can be hard to identify. “The symptoms of childhood cancer are very vague and many are the same as symptoms you see in other common childhood problems, such as a viral illness,” explains Dr. Fowler. For example, fever and fatigue are symptoms that are sometimes associated with childhood cancer — but may also be caused by many other factors.
“A parent shouldn’t look for specific symptoms for cancer, but in any situation where your child has symptoms that don’t resolve as you expect, you should consult your child’s doctor — doctors are trained to look for specific red flags and ask the right questions.”
Steps to recovery
If cancer is diagnosed, treatment may be just a few months. “But sometimes our patients — particularly our leukemia patients — have treatments that last several years,” reveals Dr. Fowler. That type of ongoing medical problem brings with it its own challenges.
“It can definitely impact the family dynamic in a lot of ways. These kids have treatments that require them to be in a clinic or a hospital several times a week or sometimes to be in a clinic or hospital for weeks to months,” she explains. “It turns their lives upside down, but they eventually come to what I call a ‘new normal.’ And their new normal includes clinic visits and hospital stays and the language of medicine.”
For families facing this type of “new normal,” Dr. Fowler urges them to remember three things. “First, it’s not their fault. There is nothing they did that caused this diagnosis. It’s not like an adult cancer where there’s been a link to smoking or alcohol. So it is not something that they could have prevented.”
“I think another big thing is for parents to remember that this is not a death sentence for their child. Survival rates are very good and they should continue to have hope and optimism,” continues Dr. Fowler. “And last of all, a lot of times families feel that a diagnosis was missed — if they think their child had these symptoms for a few weeks or months and had been to their doctor, they may feel the diagnosis was missed,” describes Dr. Fowler. “We encourage people to try not to feel that way because for the most part, if a diagnosis is caught now or three weeks later, the chance of survival doesn’t change — the treatment doesn’t change. So I always encourage families not to beat themselves up over something they think may have been missed.”
Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.