A cancer diagnosis can be devastating for any patient, but what if you’re a child or teenager getting that news. Imagine the fear and stress that would arise as you face the uncertainty of your prognosis, the physical side effects of your treatment, and the separation from friends and favorite activities.
On KET’s Connections, Renee Shaw explored these challenges with a young cancer patient and a pediatric oncologist.
“It Felt Unreal”
Her mother noticed the change first: Faith Calhoun says something about her daughter Destiny’s smile didn’t look quite right.
At her next checkup, the family dentist discovered a mass on the left side of Destiny’s jaw. A subsequent trip to the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry for more extensive x-rays and a biopsy revealed the diagnosis: osteosarcoma of the mandible.
Cancer of the jawbone.
“It felt unreal,” says Destiny, who was 16 at the time. “Once I got my initial news and I had my moment, then I was able to start wrapping my head around it and just dealing with it.”
Destiny underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries to remove the tumor and rebuild her jawbone. As a result, it’s now difficult for Destiny to speak and her face is somewhat disfigured. Faith Calhoun says she advised her daughter that as long she didn’t make her looks an issue, no one else would either.
“The world is judgmental, we are a superficial culture, but I know I didn’t raise her to be focused on the outside,” Faith says. “I’ve always instilled in her to be someone of character and someone of compassion for other people.”
More reconstructive procedures are still to come, but for now Destiny is cancer free. The Berea College freshman says she wants to be a role model for other young people dealing with cancer.
“Mom always told me not to let my bad days outweigh the good,” Destiny says. “You can have your crying moments, you can feel bad but you can’t let that constantly ruin your day because life is precious and you don’t want anyone to tell you that you’re not going to make it or that you can’t do something, because you can.”
Understanding Cancer in Children
“Pediatric cancer still represents the number one cause of death from disease in childhood,” says Dr. Lars Wagner, who is chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at UK HealthCare’s Kentucky Children’s Hospital and Destiny Calhoun’s doctor.
Wagner says researchers don’t yet understand the causes of many childhood cancers since most patients haven’t lived long enough to be exposed to environmental and lifestyle factors generally attributed to the disease. He says Destiny’s case represents another puzzle: cancers of the jaw are more common in middle-aged adults but are vary rare in children.
The good news, according to Wagner, is that cure rates for pediatric cancers have greatly improved over the last 50 years. He says a type of childhood leukemia that once killed most of its patients now has a 90 percent survival rate. Furthermore four out of five of newly diagnosed childhood cancer patients will be long-term survivors, Wagner says, meaning they will be disease-free at five years from diagnosis.
’It Takes a Village’
Part of that success comes from how physicians treat those cancers. Wagner says pediatric cancers respond better to chemotherapy and children can generally tolerate higher doses of those drugs than adults.
“They’re tough, they’re resilient, their organs work very well,” Wagner says. “So we push the patients pretty vigorously and are able to achieve good outcomes through intensive therapies.”
But it takes more than drugs to ensure a positive outcome.
“We have a saying on our team that it really takes a village to take care of these patients – not just surgeons or oncologists to prescribe the medicines but other ways of supporting families,” Wagner explains.
He says the Kentucky Children’s Hospital has a mental health team to help young patients cope with being isolated from their peers and adjust to any disfigurements that may result from their treatments. The hospital also employs a teacher-advocate who helps children transition back to their school environments. He says the patients who do best are the ones that successfully reintegrate to their normal lives as soon as possible.
Finally Wagner says a supportive family, like Destiny Calhoun has, is also crucial to the healing process.
“What a privilege it is to take care of patients like Destiny and to get to meet families like the Calhouns,” says Wagner. “They’re just wonderful people… So it’s a real blessing to try to make a difference for these patients.”