By Douglas Scothorn, MD, and Ginna Priola, MD
In most people’s lives, September represents the changing of the leaves, pumpkin spice lattes and yellow school buses picking up excited kids returning to school. However, for our families at Mission Children’s Hospital, it’s a month to recognize the courageous battles being fought by their children. September is Childhood Cancer and Sickle Cell Awareness Month.
Roughly 15,600 children are diagnosed with cancer every year (that’s 43 children per day) and 1 out of every 9 will lose their battle. As in adults, childhood cancer does not discriminate: diagnoses cross all ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes and geographic regions. Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in children. Currently, we have 429,000 childhood cancer survivors in the US, of which 95 percent will have at least one significant health related-issues due to their original diagnosis or their treatment.
Over the past 40 years, the survival rates for childhood cancer have increased from less than 60 percent to almost 85 percent. In large part, this is a result of research and clinical trials run by the Children’s Oncology Group (COG). COG is made up of over 200 hospitals that treat children and adolescents with cancer in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. These hospitals work together to develop treatment approaches for all types of childhood cancer. This ensures that children can receive the same state-of-the-art cancer treatment, regardless of where they live. Mission Children’s Hospital has been a member of the COG for almost 25 years.
Since 1980, only three drugs have been approved to treat children with cancer, and four drugs have been approved for use in both adults and children. Many childhood cancer treatments haven’t changed since the 1970s. On average, the five-year survival has improved from about 50 percent in 1975 to greater than 80 percent in 2010. However, there is still a long way to go. Although there are numerous nonprofits focused on providing funding for childhood cancer research, the National Cancer Institute currently only designates 4 percent of its annual budget toward childhood cancer research.
Clinical trials for childhood cancer typically compare the current best known treatments (called the “Standard of Care”) with treatments that are hoped to be more effective and/or have fewer side effects than the standard of care treatments (known as the “Experimental Treatment”). After each clinical trial, the treatment with the best outcomes becomes the new standard of care.
As of September 2019, Mission Children’s Hospital has over 60 active clinical trials designed to treat more than 90 percent of children with cancer. This means that children in western North Carolina can be assured of receiving the best available treatment for their cancer without having to leave their friends, family or community.
Here at Mission Children’s Hospital, in our pediatric hematology/oncology clinic housed in the SECU Cancer Center, we diagnose about 20 new patients a year in western North Carolina and continue to care for them throughout their diagnosis and for many years following.
As staff and providers at Mission Children’s Hospital, we understand the tremendous opportunity and responsibility we harbor to help these kids and their families … FIGHT LIKE A KID.
Douglas Scothorn, MD, is a pediatric oncologist at Mission Children’s Hospital.
Ginna Priola, MD, is a pediatric oncologist at Mission Children’s Hospital.