September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness month. As a parent, I can think of few other things I’d rather be less aware of. But as a Pediatrician, I know that 1 in 285 children is diagnosed with cancer before age 20. And childhood cancer remains the second leading cause of death in children aged 5-14, and the third leading cause of death in kids 0-5 and 15-19.
Childhood Cancer is Not Preventable
We know to not smoke, to avoid excessive sun exposure, and to maintain a healthy lifestyle to reduce our risk of cancer. Dangerous lifestyle factors cause many adult cancers. Chemicals in tobacco smoke, radiation from sun and exposure to other toxins damage our cells on a genetic level, increasing cancer risk. The more exposure over time, the more likely damage will occur. Thus the teaching in medicine: If you live long enough, you will get cancer.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, no known environmental factors increase the risk of childhood cancer. We should obviously teach our children to make healthy choices and to avoid the bad stuff. But for childhood cancer, the risk is the same for a child fed a steady diet of organic, non-GMO kale and quinoa as it is for a child fed a steady diet of spicy cheesy puffs and “fruit” punch. This is important, because it means if your child gets cancer, it is not your fault. But please don’t feed your child spicy cheesy puffs.
With more time and more research, scientists will identify causative factors, making a big step towards preventing cancer, but we are not there yet.
There are many different types of childhood cancer. The most common is leukemia, which is cancer of the bone marrow or blood cells. Brain and spinal cord cancers are the second most common. Other types of childhood cancer develop in the abdomen, lymph nodes, eyes, muscles, bones, or other organs. Because cancer can develop in so many places, there is no one symptom that means a child has cancer. And there are no screening tests (like a mammogram or colonoscopy) used to check all kids for cancer.
Many symptoms of cancer mimic symptoms of normal childhood illnesses. Fevers, fatigue, vomiting, headaches, rashes, poor appetite, shortness of breath: all can indicate a pesky viral illness, or be indicators of cancer. The difference is, most childhood illnesses last a few days, whereas cancer symptoms persist. Symptoms that are not normal include bone pain, night sweats (without fevers), excessive bruising, enlarged painless lymph nodes, masses in the abdomen, muscles or bones, daily headaches, seizures, or sudden behavior changes. These symptoms don’t absolutely mean cancer, but they are concerning and warrant evaluation sooner rather than later.
What should you do if you are worried? Call your child’s doctor. Schedule a check up. Don’t be afraid to ask if it could be cancer. Rest assured, your child’s doctor is always looking for cancer. We pediatricians have all diagnosed children with cancer, and we don’t forget. Those children live in the backs of our minds during every patient encounter. We evaluate and test each new patient complaint until we are sure that it isn’t cancer. But if you don’t tell us that you are worried specifically about cancer, we may forget to reassure you. So ask. And if symptoms still persist, ask again.
Childhood Cancer is Not The End
Oncologists rarely describe cancer as being, “cured,” as the risk for relapse never truly goes away. But in general, the survival rates from childhood cancer far exceed survival rates for adults. In the 1970s, more than half of children diagnosed with any cancer died. Today, over 90% of children with leukemia will survive. Survival rates for other types of cancers are nearly all approaching or about 80%, despite these cancers receiving only a fraction of the funding of adult cancer research. It is tempting to think that because ‘cure’ rates are improving so much that the funding isn’t needed, but that isn’t true.
More than 2500 children die every year from cancer. Of those that survive, more than 60% will have lifelong complications. The treatment protocols for cancers are getting better, but the chemotherapy, radiation and surgery used in treatment still take a dramatic toll on the body. Childhood cancer survivors are at increased risk for future cancers, heart problems, learning disabilities and a host of other late effects. Childhood cancer is a lifetime diagnosis. With more funding, researchers can learn to target therapies directly to kill cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells alone, giving a better quality of life to the children that survive.
How You Can Help
This September, I challenge each of you to give your voice, time, money, hair, blood or spit to help children with cancer.
Have a lot to say? Learn how to advocate for children with cancer, and read more about the STAR Act, which passed in to law on June 5th, but still needs fund appropriation.
Speak Spanish? Make A Wish, Greater Bay Area is always in need of more Spanish speaking volunteers to help grant wishes to children with chronic illnesses.
Like Bling? Buy a Childhood Cancer Awareness pin from Momcology, a group working to support families of children with cancer.
Need a haircut? Go bald with St. Baldrick’s and raise money for childhood cancer research.
Like cookies? Donate blood. Each pint donated can help up to three patients in critical need. And afterwards, you get free refreshments!
Feeling thankful for your health? Sign up to join the Bone Marrow Registry as a potential donor. If you are 18-44 years old, they will send a cheek swab kit in the mail to join. This is especially important for minorities, who are severely underrepresented in the registry!