You don’t hear much about Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, celebrated each September, in part because it falls right before Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which sets the world awash in pink. I get that childhood cancer is rare when compared to breast cancer, but I maintain there is something inherently wrong about a child getting cancer… no matter how rare it occurs.
My daughter, Tanner, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia at age 5 and finally finished chemo a year ago at age 8. She’s doing really well, thanks to the great doctors and nurses at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. We will be forever indebted, but it has been a rough road, one I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
The cruelest part of Tanner getting cancer wasn’t the pain or the hospital stays or even the chemo. It was the loss of those years of childhood that affected her the most. When she gets scared that the cancer will come back, she’s scared she won’t be able to go to school, to birthday parties, to play dates, to ride horses or to just be, well, a kid.
And that’s just it. Kids should be able to grow up without worrying about what cancer might take from them.
Survival rates for childhood cancer have increased significantly over the past few decades, but there is still work to be done. Doing what I can to raise awareness is a first step. Here are five things that I learned about childhood cancer that I’d like to share:
- Childhood cancer is different from adult cancer. Cancers that affect children are often caused by a genetic or chromosomal alteration that may occur before the child is even born, the American Cancer Society says. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental factors.
- I believe that research for childhood cancer is vastly underfunded. Of the National Cancer Institute’s $5 billion budget, only 4 percent goes specifically toward research for all types of childhood cancer combined.
- Childhood cancer is the No. 1 disease killer of children, and second only to accidents among all causes of death. The Cancer Society notes that 12,000 children in the United States will be diagnosed this year and incidence rates have been going up over the past few decades. Today, 8 in 10 children survive five years or more after diagnosis (five-year survival rate), but survival rates vary depending on type of cancer and other factors.
- Tanner’s treatment lasted years. This came as a huge shock to me. I remember staring in disbelief at the oncologist when he told me my spunky 5-year-old would endure more than two years of non-stop chemo to treat her low-risk ALL. It breaks my heart to see the same kids year after year in the oncology clinic; they fight so valiantly for so long.
- The impact of childhood cancer and its treatment extends long after remission, but there is hope. The treatments that allow children to survive cancer also can create long-term side effects, but programs like the REACH for Survivorship Program at Vanderbilt are focused on helping survivors with these issues and learning how to reduce the lasting impact of cancer, whether physical, cognitive, psychological, emotional, social and practical. Tanner will return to Survivorship Clinic every year for the rest of her life, in part to monitor her health and help her be well, but also to contribute to a pool of data which can help researchers learn more about the effects of the treatments.
Tanner is doing so well today that I sometimes feel I have no right to complain. She is a happy, healthy 4th grader who loves horseback riding and theatre and soccer. She is a survivor in every sense of the word. Survival rates for childhood cancer have increased dramatically in recent years. But we still struggle with side effects and I know other families do, too. Making others aware of the impact of this disease is an important way survivors and their families can help.
By Beth Page, Tanner and Jake’s Mom