Families, caregivers, charities and research groups across the United States observe September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
"Over the last 30 to 40 years, there's been a 55 percent reduction in mortality for childhood cancer," said Dr. Jeffery Schwartz, a Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist at the Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart in Pensacola. He says it usually takes some time before many childhood cancers are recognized. "Any sign of a new diagnosis of cancer is very non-specific. So it's hard to say a family should look for a child being pale or having excessive bruising because a lot of (those) symptoms can represent just about anything else. I think the concern becomes when something persists."
Finding childhood cancer is not something that happens a lot. Nationwide about 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year, and the vast majority of those kids survive their diagnosis and treatment. Of course, childhood cancer is not just one disease. It is made up of 12 major types and over 100 subtypes. "The most common type of cancer we see is leukemia, and the leukemias that we see in kids are generally different than those seen in adults. The second big class would be brain tumors, and the interesting thing about brain tumors is many brain tumors are actually benign tumors, they're just in a very bad location."
When it comes to treating cancer in children, Dr. Schwartz says they use the same toolbox as they do for older patients. "Many of the drugs we use are the same drugs that are used in adults. But (we are much more aggressive in how we dose younger patients). So we can give bigger doses, we can give more intensive dosing schedules so that we can be more aggressive in treating the cancers (in young patients). And kids tolerate it way better than most adults."
In addition, genetic markers can now be used to judge just how intense and aggressive a child’s treatment should be. "Genetic testing of tumor cells has changed how we can (risk stratify) cancers. So that we now know that when tumors have certain genetic markers they need more aggressive therapy."
In addition to genetic medicine, targeted chemotherapy and immune therapies are also increasing the survival rates of cancer patients both young and old. According to Dr. Schwartz the biggest problem, which should come as no surprise, is funding. "Most pediatric medicine is a money-losing entity. The federal government funds, in the big picture, very little money towards childhood cancer. So, out of the entire federal government funds for cancer research, only about four percent goes to kids. So the majority of funding to help childhood cancer research comes from organizations and individuals."
When a child is treated for cancer in any hospital, the medical part of the process, drugs, hospitalization other treatments, that gets taken care of either by insurance or some other arraignment. What is not taken care of is what is called child life programs. "So if we have a child who is in the hospital for a week, or a month, or several months, (child life programs) try to keep those kids engaged and keep them entertained and keep them enjoying themselves while they are going through everything. So, there are a lot of resources that we utilize that don't get funded."