Protecting Our Children: Blood Cancer Awareness Month

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
Zariyah | The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Facebook spotlight

“Nobody expects their child to be diagnosed with cancer.”

That said, Dr. Cori Morrison, a pediatric hematology/oncology specialist at Children’s Hospital and board member of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of the Gulf Coast (LLS), has had to break this news to far too many parents over the course of her career.

Blood cancers such as leukemia are more common in children than in adults. Even scarier, while it is understood that environmental and lifestyle factors can contribute to adult leukemia, no one really knows why the disease appears in children. Morrison has seen patients as young as one week old.

“We assume that some children are born with certain cancer predispositions, but we don’t really know what they are or why,” she noted. “This requires more research, more data analytics, and for that, we need to include more patients in the studies.”

There is a big silver lining to this alarming cloud: the blood cancer survival rate for children is higher than that for adults, in the 90 to 95 percent range.

“A cancer diagnosis does not in and of itself equal death,” Morrison stated firmly. “It is survivable, and what we tell every child and family is that they are not a statistic.”

As with all cancers, having a baseline of good, regular medical care is vital to detecting it early, as is knowing potential symptoms. Ensuring that as many parents as possible understand these factors is the underlying purpose of the LLS Blood Cancer Awareness Month program in September. The more this information is out in the community, the greater the number of children that will survive these cancers.

Chief among those symptoms, according to Morrison, is a lingering fever, one that lasts more than two weeks and continues even after other symptoms or ailments that appeared at the same time have gone away. Easier bruising and/or frequent nosebleeds are also common symptoms, along with the child generally not feeling well with no obvious cause.

Treatment typically begins with chemotherapy; some patients may receive immunotherapies at the same time. Depending on the type of cancer and the patient’s initial response, a bone marrow transplant, which provides powerful stem cells to the patient, may be recommended.

Even though these treatments are very effective, they are also scary to children and parents, and can be thoroughly disruptive of family life. Parents may be forced to take extended leave from work, or even quite their jobs entirely, in order to care for sick children. Everything from schooling to transportation can become an issue. Meanwhile, siblings of the patient may feel neglected while parents focus on the sick child.

To address this, beyond supporting research on causes and treatments for pediatric blood cancers, LLS works to provide family support while a child is undergoing the various therapies.

Another key piece of data Morrison shared is that Latino children have higher incidences of blood cancers than the general youth population. Again, the reasons for this are not clear, though Morrison speculated that access to health care within this particular community could be a contributing factor. Not only does this mean that Latino children may be less likely to have their cancer diagnosed and treated, it also means that they are under-represented in leukemia research – when then makes it even harder to determine what factors may be causing this disease prevalence.

On a more positive note, Morrison observed that COVID did not have any particular effects on her and her colleagues’ work, apart from expanding the use of telehealth.

“Because they already had compromised immune systems, wearing a mask was not foreign to the patients and families. They washed their hands with more frequency and vigor than the general population already.”

As a physician, Morris is deeply committed to her patients; as an LLS board member, she is equally committed to building community awareness of pediatric blood cancers.

“The reality is that kids do get cancer, it doesn’t matter what your age or socio-economic status may be,” she said, adding that on average, patients require two and a half years of treatment, as well as lifelong monitoring to ensure that the disease does not reappear.

“Treatment is a journey, with lots of ebbs and flows, ups and downs,” she continued. “These kids are resilient, but we need more community support, more funding for research and treatment. September may be Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, but we need people to remember us throughout the year, because these kids are going through their journey throughout the year.”

 

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