Defeating Childhood Cancer

by St. Baldrick's Foundation
February 29, 2012


By St. Baldrick’s Scholar Jason Yustein, M.D., Ph.D.

“Your child has cancer.” These are four words every parent dreads hearing.

But, before they hear these words, the symptoms leading to this point might not start out big — in fact, for Chris, it started out as small as a few minor aches in his leg. He and his parents couldn’t have imagined this would lead to a diagnosis of childhood cancer.

Just like most high school boys his age, Chris loved playing sports and rough housing with his siblings. So, when he started experiencing occasional soreness in his right leg, he didn’t think much of it. Months slowly went by. Chris’s symptoms occurred every now and then, but they disappeared momentarily with some basic medicines.

Eventually, Chris told his mom when the pain in his leg began to occur more frequently. His parents then brought him to his pediatrician, who was all too knowledgeable about normal adolescent activities and explained that Chris might have injured himself since he didn’t see anything significant on the patient’s exam.

However, as several more weeks passed, the symptoms began to be too much to bear for Chris. He started to have a noticeable limp and increased swelling in his right leg.

Chris’s mother quickly brought him back to his pediatrician, who became more concerned at the considerable inflammation in his leg. Chris was sent to get an x-ray, which revealed a large mass in his leg. The young patient, with well more than half of his life before him, was immediately sent to an orthopedic surgeon for a biopsy, or sample, of the mass.

“Your child has cancer” — the four words every parent dreads hearing — became a reality for Chris’s parents that fateful day. Chris had cancer, and more specifically, he had a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma.

While osteosarcoma is a rare cancer, with about a few hundred new cases diagnosed each year in the United States, its diagnosis often means a tough fight ahead for teenagers like Chris. This is a fight that can definitely be won, but only with extremely aggressive means of care.

The diagnosis of cancer alone is often difficult enough to accept, but for many of these adolescents, it leads to numerous alterations in lifestyle and self-image due to the limitations brought about by the treatments as they fight hard to defeat the cancer. For Chris, and others in this age group, this is just as debilitating as the disease itself. The treatment involves months and months of therapy, including intensive chemotherapy and extensive surgeries that often include bone-replacement procedures or even amputations. These are ramifications that children with cancer have to deal with for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, now several years out from his diagnosis, Chris is doing extremely well and is back to playing many of the activities he enjoyed. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for patients with osteosarcoma. In general, only about 70 percent are cured of their disease. For patients who develop the disease in different locations, such as the lungs, the probability of survival drops significantly.

With these staggering odds, it is essential to advance our understanding of this disease by performing research that can provide new insights into the cancer’s biology and ideally identify new ways to treat patients afflicted with this devastating disease. Hopefully, someday, no parent will have to hear those four words — “Your child has cancer”– again.

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