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Childhood cancer survivors -- why we wrote it

May 23, 2008 |  4:45 pm


Facing a possibly fatal condition at any age can be life-changing. But what about people who come of age during this struggle? Does the experience perhaps become life-defining?

Children who survived cancer would know, and it's to them we turned for answers. As the Times article points out, the nation's physicians, nurses and technicians have become considerably more proficient at treating young patients with cancer. Before 1970, most children diagnosed with the disease were also killed by it.  Today, nearly 80% are cured.

But that cure comes at a price.

People who have been so dramatically changed by disease -- and the attempts to cure it --  have much to teach us all. We've benefited from the medical lessons of their treatment; now perhaps we can benefit from the emotional lessons as well.

As reporter Susan Brink writes upon learning in the early 1990s that a high percentage of young survivors was developing second cancers, closely related to their initial cures: "I cringed at the unfairness of a child struggling through harsh treatments, only to face an increased risk of having to go through it again as an adult."

She began interviewing survivors of childhood cancer and the physicians who cared for them to see how young adults who had survived cancer were coping and what the medical community was learning from them.

"The young adults I talked with have learned tough lessons early about the fragility of life, lessons that most of us don't have to learn until much later. A lot of years pass between pediatric cancer treatment and the adult onset of late effects of treatment," she says. "So cancer survivors can have a tough time sorting it out -- because science hasn't sorted it all out -- which of their health problems would have come their way anyway and which are directly related to cancer treatment."

She concludes: "Their stories are a stark reminder that medicine can save lives, but seldom without changing them, sometimes in profound and unforeseen ways."

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times