One of the most heart-rending jobs in medicine is being responsible for the treatment of children who have cancer. A pediatric oncologist job comes with some unexpected highs and often excruciating lows.
On her blog, Beyond The Coat, pediatric oncologist, Dr. Wendy Rhoades, shares some of her thoughts on what parents can keep in mind when they find themselves in the unfortunate position of a child that needs cancer treatment.
Cancer is not rare
While childhood cancer is rare compared to adult cancer, it is more prevalent that you might be aware of. According to the National Cancer Institute, although cancer in children is rare, it is the leading cause of death by disease among children in the United States. There are approximately 375,000 adult survivors of children’s cancer in the United States. That equates to 1 in 530 adults ages 20-39.
Dr. Rhoades mentions that outside of her work she knows of three people who had cancer when they were children. You probably know someone too.
Curing cancer and preventing cancer is not the same thing
The prognosis in several childhood cancers has improved tremendously. Due to new drug therapies, drug delivery systems, and protocol-driven treatments most childhood cancers are cured.
In the last 40 years, the overall survival rate for children’s cancer has increased from 10% to nearly 90% today, while 10% die from cancer or the effects of their treatment. The battle is ongoing and the fight for better and more effective cures continues in many academic research hospitals.
The drugs have serious side effects and your doctor knows it
The treatment sucks. There are the potential short- and long-term effects of the cancer treatment plus the risk of secondary cancer. Absolutely no one is indifferent to a child struggling with low blood cell counts, nausea, diarrhea, or hair loss during treatment, and doctors are only too aware of the long-term effects of possible heart or lung damage and potential fertility problems children face later in life.
Prevention is better than cure
Dr. Rhoades urges parents to use sunscreen on themselves and their children and to teach their children about healthy lifestyles and to warn them against the health dangers of tobacco, excessive eating, alcohol, and stress.
“Take care of yourself and teach them how to take care of themselves. These are preventative measures,” she writes.
Vaccines save lives
It’s imperative that parents have their children vaccinated against preventable illnesses. A child cancer patient can’t afford to be exposed to a vaccine-preventable disease like measles because their immune systems are so severely compromised. They can lose the immunity that they once had from their vaccines and until they are strong enough to receive vaccines again, they are at risk from dying from vaccine-preventable illnesses.
“It is a fact that for some patients, vaccines can be dangerous. This includes cancer patients. The vaccines can be dangerous for them and the vaccine-preventable diseases are definitely dangerous to them. We rely on the immunity of the community to protect our most vulnerable,” states Dr. Rhoades, adding that the HPV vaccine prevents against cervical and head and neck cancers later in life.
In spite of what you see on the news, good people abound
Day to day life with a child that has cancer can be very difficult for the child and their loved ones. It’s a situation that life doesn’t prepare you for; an emotional roller coaster ride that can leave parents, siblings and friends unable to cope appropriately. That is where the medical and nursing staff play and unsurpassed role.
For upliftment and inspiration visit the cancer clinic and visit the medical school. There you’ll find and be inspired by dedicated doctors and nurses committed to the wellbeing of the patients’ in their care.
Don’t lose your faith in miracles, but be wary of miracle cures
Miracles do happen and there have been cases of unexplained spontaneous recovery from cancer, but so-called miracle cures are best avoided.
Pediatric oncologists are highly trained specialists who keep abreast of the latest research and who are often involved in cancer research themselves. Says Dr. Rhoades: “We aren’t hiding anything. If I think it will help you, I will tell you. If I think it will hurt you, I will tell you. If I think I can cure you, I will tell you. If I think I can’t cure you, I will also tell you that.”
Natural remedies can be useful, but tell your doctor
A substance that is natural is not necessarily safe. It’s important to tell your doctor what your child is taking, so the doctor can ensure the child’s safety.
Healing and curing can be mutually exclusive
Healing and curing are inherently different. If you are cured, it means that the treatment you received got rid of the disease you had. To heal means to “become whole”. Sometimes it happens that someone is healed but not cured.
Doctors are not immune to the uncomfortable sight of children undergoing cancer treatment
Doctors are deeply touched by the suffering of their patients and they worry constantly that their own children may become victims too. Their bald patients are a constant reminder of the threat. After all, one in three people will develop cancer in their lifetime and one in 285 children will develop cancer before the age of 18. That’s a sobering thought.
“I get it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s terrifying. Turning a blind eye will not decrease the chance that someone you love will be diagnosed with cancer.”