Monday, September 1, 2014

Childhood Cancer Awareness

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Unless, of course, you're a family touched by childhood cancer, in which case every month, every week, every day is shaped by a level of awareness no one wants but yet manages to provide significant blessings along the way. For those who do not live with that awareness, I'm posting something I wrote in late September 2008, just as Jake came off treatment. 

And Then . . .

There was me trying to decide what to write next.

It's been two weeks since his last chemo. He's had his blood draws for that period and his counts are good. On Monday the 27th he has a CT scan and MRI and we'll go to clinic the next day to meet with Dr. Afify for the final time. But not really--because, of course, we don't get to just walk out and pretend this all never happened. There will be scans and exams and probably worrisome moments aplenty over the next five years until Jake is officially declared cured. And I don't think I'm quite ready for all that. I'm still contemplating switching into that gear and wondering what life will look like then.

In the meantime, I've had a copy of Newsweek in my inbox for several weeks waiting for me to do this post. It's the September 15 issue and it has a story entitled WE FOUGHT CANCER . . . AND CANCER WON.

In 1971 (two years after I was born), Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act which was supposed to make cancer curable. Instead, almost forty years later, cancer is poised to overtake cardiovascular disease as America's number one killer.

There has been, as Newsweek put it, "a lot of elegant science . . . [but] studies of the mechanisms leading to cancer and efforts to control cancer often seemed to inhabit separate worlds . . . Indeed, it is possible (and common) for cancer researchers to achieve extraordinary acclaim and success . . . without ever helping a single patient gain a single extra day of life."

Why? On the NCI website, one can read that "the biology of the more than 100 types of cancers has proven far more complex than imagined [in 1971]." Cancer is smart. Send a drug up against it, and the cancer cells will develop around it. Like bacteria, cancer cells are constantly learning and mutating.

Metastasis is the greatest enemy. Metastatic cells, those that break off from the original tumor and grow elsewhere in the body, are responsible for 90 percent of cancer deaths. You want to know the really scary thing? There's no way to be certain that you're not leaving metastatic cells behind after treatment. Radiation killed the tumor in Jake's sinus. Forty-two weeks of chemotherapy have killed off any microscopic cells left behind. We hope. But the truth is, there's no way to tell.

The overall mortality rate from cancer has fallen 7.5 percent since 1971. In 1991, 215 out of every 100,000 Americans died of cancer. In 2005, it was 184 out of 100,00. Progress, but slow. Consider that deaths from cardiovascular disease have fallen by 70 percent in the same time period.

However, there's a brighter statistic. Fifty years ago, pediatric cancer was an almost certain death sentence (children with leukemia in the 1940s rarely lived longer than 3 months). Today, 80 percent of pediatric cancer patients live to be adults.

80 percent.

Why? Because pediatric oncologists banded together. With fewer patients, they reached out across the country for advice and help. The Children's Oncology Group (COG) has standardized treatment plans for pediatric patients. At times, 80 percent of children with a particular cancer are enrolled in the same clinical trial (Jake is part of a clinical trial)--it's long been less than 1 percent for adults. Rather than focus on new biological pathways, pediatric oncologists took the weapons they had and learned how to use them in new ways. And along the way, they saved the lives of countless children.

Only they're not countless to their parents.

Bravo. And thank you.

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