Health Features

Caring for Kids with Cancer

With September designated as National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, it’s an important time to remember the serious impact of pediatric cancers on families and communities. Dr. Amy Armstrong, a Washington University oncologist with Siteman Kids at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, says childhood cancer cure rates have increased significantly due to treatment advancements, but it’s still important for parents to educate themselves and be alert for possible signs of disease.

“Improved cure rates are driven largely by our success in treating leukemia, the most common childhood cancer diagnosis,” Armstrong says. “In leukemia, abnormal white blood cells take over the body’s bone marrow production, and good blood components like hemoglobin and platelets are not made in sufficient quantities. We explain to children that it’s like an auto factory making all the wrong kinds of cars.”

Armstrong says parents should be aware of possible leukemia symptoms including skin paleness, abnormal bruising, and bleeding from the nose, mouth or gums. Tiredness, weakness and pain in the legs, ankles and other joints are other warning signs. “If your child cuts herself and the bleeding doesn’t stop, that can be a sign of low platelets,” Armstrong notes. “Less commonly, there may be blood in the urine or stool.”

Treatment for the condition depends on the subtype of leukemia, according to Armstrong. “Chemotherapy is generally the cornerstone, and very rarely is radiation needed,” she says. “In some more difficult cases, stem cell transplants may be considered.”

Brain and spinal cord tumors make up the second most common group of childhood cancers. Possible symptoms include persistent headaches, nausea, vomiting, vision changes and loss of balance or coordination. “For these cancers, we tend to think about multidisciplinary care,” Armstrong says. “We, as oncologists, are well versed in chemotherapy and treatments to target cancer cells, but we also have colleagues with expertise in the surgical removal of tumors, and radiation oncologists to provide additional therapy.”

Armstrong points out that, in cases where a child’s cancer relapses or there are other complications, enrolling the child in a clinical trial may be a good option. “Learning your son or daughter has cancer can be overwhelming,” she says. “You have a seemingly healthy child at one moment, and the next, you’re getting a life-changing diagnosis.” Participating in a clinical trial can offer new treatment opportunities while benefiting future cancer patients as well, she says.

“If your child seems out of sorts or is not acting normally, it’s always a good idea to visit your pediatrician, even if you’re not sure there is a problem,” Armstrong advises. “We would much rather err on the side of caution in these cases. As doctors, we know that parents’ intuition is invaluable, because they spend the most time with the child and understand his or her usual behavior the best.”

did you know?

  • About 10,500 U.S. children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer this year.
  • Cancer is the second most common cause of death in children ages 1 to 14, while the most common is accident-related injury.
  • In the mid-1970s, the five-year survival rate for children with cancer was about 58%. Today, because of major treatment advances, it is 84%.

Source: American Cancer Society

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