Thankfully, childhood cancer is rare. But for the families that experience it, the impact is both immediate and far reaching.
Just ask David Becton, M.D. As a pediatric oncologist, Becton knows firsthand how families are impacted by the cancer diagnosis of a child.
“When a child has cancer, it doesn’t just affect him or her. It also has ramifications for siblings, parents, grandparents and friends,” Becton said.
That’s why the UAMS Department of Pediatrics, which treats patients at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH), offers a comprehensive family-centered program that addresses not just the child’s illness, but also the physical, emotional and financial needs of families.
“I like to think we offer comprehensive care in the best sense of the word,” said Becton, professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics. Three full-time oncology social workers are on staff and work closely with each family starting on the day of diagnosis, offering everything from psychological counseling and parent support groups to assistance with resources for basic needs such as groceries, household bills and transportation.
A number of other support programs give children undergoing cancer treatment a sense of normalcy in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. Art and play therapy are regular offerings, letting children express their emotions and learn to cope with the stress of illness, while a long-standing pet therapy program brings specially trained dogs to the hospital to visit with patients.
While these types of support programs are essential for children who may spend days or weeks in a hospital room away from their friends, school and regular routine, the central focus of their care is their treatment plan.
About 80-100 newly diagnosed pediatric cancer patients are treated each year at ACH by UAMS physicians. In addition, up to 1,500 patients are followed by the hospital for at least 10 years.
About 25 Arkansas children are diagnosed each year with leukemia, which is the most common pediatric cancer. Brain tumors, lymphomas and other types of childhood »
cancer follow. The vast majority of patients undergo chemotherapy, while those with solid tumors are likely also to have surgery, as well as radiation treatment at the UAMS Radiation Oncology Center.
Special requirements, including sedation, for children undergoing radiation therapy are carefully administered by physicians at the center. The number of radiation treatments can last anywhere from one to six weeks, said Jose Penagaricano, M.D., a professor in the UAMS Department of Radiation Oncology who specializes in pediatrics.
While a child’s cancer diagnosis is a particularly frightening and stressful experience, parents can take comfort in the fact that research advancements have led to better treatment and increased survival rates. This is due in large part to the overwhelming participation of children in cancer clinical trials.
About 75 percent of ACH cancer patients are eligible to participate in clinical trials, primarily offered through the Children’s Oncology Group, funded by the National Cancer Institute. Some trials provides patients with new treatment options, while others study their cancer cells to find better ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating various types of cancer.
“Pediatric patients should always be encouraged to participate in clinical trials,” Penagaricano said. Trials and basic research have led to more targeted treatments that improve outcomes for many children.
“Overall, about 80 percent of our children are cured, but there’s still work to do,” Becton said.