Every 4 minutes, somewhere in the world a family will be told that their child has cancer. In the United States alone, around 10,000 to 13,000 children will be newly diagnosed with cancer this year. Of those children who are diagnosed with cancer, 20 percent succumb to the disease. With such staggering statistics, it is infuriating that only about 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s funding goes toward childhood cancer research. The good news is that after the Creating Hope Act was passed in 2011, more incentives have been created for companies that wish to research medications designed for children.
In fact, after nearly three decades of stagnant failure to produce any new FDA-approved childhood cancer drugs, a new drug is being researched for a rare type of brain tumor that affects mostly young children. This medication could be the first new FDA-approved pediatric cancer drug to be clinically used in decades. Hopefully the future will bring more advancement in treatment of childhood cancers.
I never expected to be this passionate about something that used to (and still does, often) terrify me. A few months ago, I started my pediatric residency training at an amazing children’s hospital. I knew that I wanted to go into the field of pediatrics, but I never thought that I would fall in love with the part of it that I feared the most: hematology/oncology. This field involved the big, scary “C” word, and I was not sure how anyone could utter that word to a child. The thought of diagnosing a child with this dreaded medical condition was unimaginable and heart wrenching.
My fear of the “C” word is deeply rooted. When I was in middle school, a distant cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. He was young, vibrant, and had gotten into a prestigious college in hopes of becoming a pharmacist. Sadly, he passed away. What little personal experience I had with this diagnosis was enough to scare me.
Fast forward more than a decade. I was in my last year of medical school when my uncle was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He had never smoked or drank in his life and, yet he was battling stage 4 cancer. He fought hard for a year but ultimately passed away. The “C” word was relentless. It was iniquitous. It was destructive.
Then, a few months into residency, I was covering the hematology/oncology service, and I was called for an admission of a girl with a rare brain tumor. Her medical records were tainted by words like, “terminal” and “inoperable.” But when I walked into the room, I saw Mom sitting in the corner with an iPad showing pictures to her daughter. Dad was battling with the unruly knot on the take-out food bag. The normalcy of the situation was surprising. I asked the child, “How are you?” I felt silly asking this question. What a stupid question. Her answer? “I’m good. Check out my cool nails.” My gaze wandered to her nails. Intricate with details and glitter. “Mom does nails. Aren’t they awesome?” Turns out, mom’s nail art is a hit on the floors and she always shares her talent when her daughter is admitted.
I was in awe, not because this was a smiling little girl with cancer. Rather, I was in awe of the innocence and simplicity that defined this amazingly ferocious young woman and her family. All these years, I ran from the word cancer, fearing it and creating a grim stigma of what it meant to be a cancer patient. I believed cancer defined people. I should have known better. My cousin, my uncle, and this young girl are examples of lives being more than just one unfortunate diagnosis. From these three and many more wonderful cancer fighters, I have gained an immense respect for human perseverance.
Cancer is a monumental reminder that people are formidable, life is precious, and health is unbiased. But we, as providers and communicators, are not unbiased. We are not unaffected. But we can effect change. Let’s work toward new treatment options. It is a necessity, and we owe it to our fighters.
Priyal Patel graduated in 2009 from Fairleigh Dickenson University-College at Floham with Summa Cum Laude in biological sciences and minors in chemistry, lab sciences and anthropology. She then graduated in 2013 with a medical degree from New York Institute of Technology. She is currently a pediatric resident in Columbus, Ohio and is hoping to pursue a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology in the future.