10 things a pediatric oncologist wants you to know
1. Cancer isn’t rare. Technically, childhood cancer is rare compared to adult cancer, but it’s not as rare as you think. Outside of my work, I can think of three people who I know personally that had childhood cancer – a teammate on my high school basketball team, my sister-in-law- and a high school debate teammate. My guess is that you also know someone from church, a coworker’s kid, or one of your kids’ classmates who has been affected by this disease.
2. Curing cancer and preventing cancer aren’t the same thing. We do have a cure for the majority of childhood cancers – nearly 90 percent of children diagnosed with cancer will survive. We’re not done, though. The treatments stink. We can do better – 10 percent of children still die from cancer or from the effects of their treatment. This is why we advocate. We advocate for better and more effective cures. We will not rest until we have it perfect.
3. I know my drugs have side effects. Trust me, I know. See above.
4. Keep prevention in mind. Put sunscreen on yourself and your children. Teach them about the dangers of tobacco and excessive habits (i.e., food, alcohol, stress). Take care of yourself and teach your children how to take care of themselves. These are preventative measures.
5. Vaccines save lives. Some of my patients lose the immunity they once had from their vaccinations. Until they’re strong enough to receive vaccines again, they’re at risk of dying from vaccine-preventable illnesses. You picking up what I’m putting down? In addition, vaccines themselves can be dangerous from some patients, including my cancer patients. This is why we rely on the immunity of the community to protect our most vulnerable. To note, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine works to prevent cervical and head and neck cancers later in life.
6. In spite of what you see on the news, good people abound. Come to the Cancer Center and meet the nurses, doctors, social workers, kids and families – heck, meet everyone. Visit any medical school; it’s brimming with bright young minds of leaders of the next generation. Everyone you meet will inspire you.
7. I believe in miracles. I don’t believe they come with a price tag. Be wary of “miracle cures.” We aren’t hiding anything. If I think it will help your child, I will tell you. If I think it will hurt your child, I will tell you. If I think I can cure your child, I will tell you. If I think I can’t cure your child, I will also tell you.
8. I’m not against all things natural. It depends on the situation. Tell your doctor what your child is taking. I just want you guys to be safe.
9. Healing and curing can be mutually exclusive. It depends on the situation. I became a doctor to heal, and sometimes that doesn’t include a cure.
10. I know it’s uncomfortable to see children going through therapy. I feel it too, sometimes. It hits me at the most unexpected moments. The moments when my own children are sleeping peacefully and I’m stroking their soft hair, when they dash out into the rain to taste the sky with upturned faces or when they nuzzle up against me and tell me I’m their favorite mama. I think, “what if cancer happens to my child?” It’s a nauseating gut punch, followed by the feeling of your heart being knocked to the ground and shredded until it’s no longer recognizable. You realize, “that could be my kid” when you see one of my bald-headed patients. I get it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s terrifying. Turning a blind eye will not decrease the chance that someone you love will be diagnosed with cancer. In fact, 1 in 3 people will develop cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 285 children will develop cancer before the age of 18. Ignoring the facts will not make them go away. Help us advocate for our children.