September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. At UNMH, where I work, they hang a huge banner across the Lomas bridge, which reminds us to think about the children, families and communities affected by childhood cancer. It also reminds us to think about what we can do. We can volunteer, we can donate or, if all that is too much, we can simply remember. Awareness means knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists. Raising awareness about the problem is the first step to fighting it.
And what is the problem? The problem is that, even though we have made great strides in the diagnosis and treatment of childhood cancer, there are still thousands of children every year who cannot be cured, and thousands more who are cured, but who live with the after-effects of cancer therapy for the rest of their lives. More research, more science, more clinical trials, more treatments, more education, more outreach and more follow-up is needed to ensure that more children are cured and go on to live high-quality, productive lives.
There have been concerted efforts to further this goal from local and national entities for the past 40 years. These efforts were made more visible and more tangible in September 2016, when President Obama issued a proclamation that September would be Childhood Cancer Awareness month, that year and every year after.
He said, “Every year, thousands of children across America are diagnosed with cancer, an often life-threatening illness that remains the leading cause of death by disease for children under the age of 15. The causes of pediatric cancer are still largely unknown, and though new discoveries are resulting in new treatments, this heartbreaking disease continues to scar families and communities in ways that may never fully heal. This month, we remember the young lives taken too soon, stand with the families facing childhood cancer today, and rededicate ourselves to combating this terrible illness.
“While much remains to be done, our Nation has come far in the fight to understand, treat, and control childhood cancer. Thanks to ongoing advances in research and treatment, the 5-year survival rate for all childhood cancers has climbed from less than 50% to 80% over the past several decades. Researchers around the world continue to pioneer new therapies and explore the root causes of the disease, driving progress that could reveal cures or improved outcomes for patients. But despite the gains we have made, help still does not come soon enough for many of our sons and daughters, and too many families suffer pain and devastating loss.”
His words still ring true, and our collective efforts to eradicate childhood cancer continue. Today, in 2019, cancer is the number one cause of death by disease for children under 15. Approximately 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year in the U.S., and 300,000 globally. Around 420,000 U.S. adults are childhood cancer survivors. An incredible 80% of children treated for cancer today are cancer free at 5 years. However, 20% of children diagnosed with cancer do not survive.
A critical problem in the fight against childhood cancer has been a lack of information that could facilitate more research and enable better treatment options. Therefore, it is important to ensure that policy makers, researchers and leaders in health care have the tools needed to collect data and share information on childhood cancer.
The rate of childhood cancer is 14/100,000 children, up from 11/100,000 20 years ago. The most common are leukemias (blood cancer) and brain cancer, comprising 50% of all childhood cancers. There are also soft tissue cancers, non-Hodgkin lymphomas, kidney cancer, bone and joint cancer, and Hodgkin lymphoma, among others. Though survival rates have dramatically increased over the past 20 years, survival does come at a cost. Late effects of treatment can include heart damage, second cancers, lung damage, infertility, cognitive impairment, growth deficits, hearing loss and more. It has become apparent that childhood cancers, even when cured, are “for life.” It is imperative that all survivors of childhood cancer receive ongoing monitoring, and continued physical and psychosocial care throughout their adult lives.
Though the incidence of childhood cancers might seem rare compared to some adult-onset diseases, the impact to families and communities is immense. It is likely that each of us personally knows someone affected by childhood cancer. Consider these children and families this September. If you wish to volunteer, resources may be found at: (1) https://www.acco.org/get-involved/; (2) www.curesearch.org; (3) www.ccfnm.org; or (4) the UNM Foundation.
To further quote President Obama, “This month, we pay tribute to the families, friends, professionals, and communities who lend their strength to children fighting pediatric cancer. May their courage and commitment continue to move us toward new cures, healthier outcomes, and a brighter future for America’s youth.”
The proclamation may be read in its entirety at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/09/01/presidential-proclamation-national-childhood-cancer-awareness-month-2016.
Anjali Subbaswamy is a Pediatric Intensive Care Physician at UNM. Please send your questions to her at ASubbaswamy@salud.unm.edu.