Childhood cancer is yucky!

Given that September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month, it is more than fitting for me to dedicate a post to a cause that is very dear to my heart.

Gold ribbon for childhood cancer.

Gold ribbon for childhood cancer.

As most of you might know by now, I am a childhood cancer survivor. When I was three years old, I was diagnosed with stage III rhabdomyosarcoma – a rare cancer that typically affects children aged 1-5 years old.

Me during my treatment as a child

I underwent surgery, 23 treatments of radiation, 2 years of chemotherapy, and endured countless tests, procedures, infections, severe nausea, as well as various complications.

These were just some of the physical side effects of my childhood cancer diagnosis.

But what most people don’t realize about childhood cancer are the chronic or late- term effects of this diagnosis. In many cases it is something that is with you for the rest of your life.

Essentially, the methods traditionally used in cancer treatment, which are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy – the “cut, poison, and burn” approach – are very invasive and harsh.

Now imagine how taxing these treatments are on the bodies of children. Many children cannot tolerate the recommended full course of life-saving treatments, as they are too toxic to endure. My parents and I recall all of those brave little fighters that passed away while I was under treatment as their tiny bodies simply gave up.

One of the challenges encountered in treating children with cancer is due to the fact that children’s bodies and brains are still growing and have not fully developed yet. Additionally, cancers in children tend to grow more quickly and metastasize to other parts of the body much faster.

Each childhood cancer diagnosis as well as the treatment used carries its own set of challenges and late-term effects. Generally speaking, some of the most common late-term effects are heart damage, lung damage, infertility, cognitive impairment, stunted growth and development, altered appearance, tissue and muscle damage, hearing loss, vision problems, hormonal imbalances, reproductive and sexual development issues, dental problems, digestive issues, and the most feared of all – secondary cancers.

As if throwing all these hurdles at children and youngsters (who uses the word ‘youngsters’ anymore, man I am old) isn’t enough, these children risk facing further hurdles that they must overcome in their lives due to their childhood cancer diagnosis. Many will require emotional or psychological support as well as regular screening and close surveillance to keep them as healthy as possible.

Once again, these are all things that do not cross people’s minds when they think of childhood cancer. The average person is saddened by the thought of seeing bald children who are battling a horrible disease, but they feel comfort in believing that after these children undergo their treatments, they will get better and be cured. And it all ends there.

If only things were this peachy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.

To put things into perspective, I will tell you some of the physical challenges my parents and I faced after my treatment ended. Infections galore, the removal of all my teeth because they were rotting due to the radiation, loss of function to the muscles of my neck causing mobility issues, stunted growth, sinus damage, scar tissue on my lungs, liver and kidneys, and secondary cancers. Oh, and slight facial asymmetry, which I always say ‘adds extra character.’ At least my modesty wasn’t impacted 😉

As I grew older, I didn’t want to have anything to do with my diagnosis, which is a typical reaction experienced by many childhood and adolescent cancer survivors. I didn’t want to see the bald-headed pictures nor did I ever want to hear or be reminded of the C-word. It was something that I wanted to bury very deep. A distant memory to be forgotten. However, as I matured, I realized I could share my experiences with other young patients dealing with cancer, so I became a Sick Kids Ambassador – one of my most fulfilling accomplishments. And today I plan on continuing to advocate for cancer patients, and I created this blog where all I do is talk about cancer. Ah, how times have changed.

And not only did times change with respect to my thoughts and experiences throughout my cancer career, but so too did times change with respect to childhood cancer prognoses. There have been tremendous advancements made in treating and curing cancer in children, as many more children are surviving their disease today than 30 years ago. However, many children are still dying from this treacherous disease, and this is unacceptable.

In Canada, childhood cancer remains responsible for more deaths than any other disease; more deaths than asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and AIDS combined. Scary stuff!

Now that I have finished demonstrating some hard to swallow information, hey no one said cancer was pretty, I would also like to pay tribute to childhood cancer survivors and children currently battling cancer – you are the bravest cancer fighters out there. Each and every one of you is a constant reminder to society that we must not sweat the small stuff, enjoy life, and complain less.

I can assure you that if you walk past the pediatric cancer wing at Sick Kids you will find many smiling children. This alone is an important lesson to many adults out there. Myself included.

So now that you have been informed, go out and inform others of the work that needs to be done to keep your children healthy. Let’s put an end to childhood cancer and eliminate all of the nasty late-term effects that follow. We owe it to our kids.

And to any parents out there, you can get your kids involved in supporting and raising both awareness and money for Sick Kids. One such way is to have children donate their allowance or piggy bank savings. This is a first step towards a life of philanthropy as well as having your child make a real difference in the life of a sick child. Definitely something to be proud of.

As the Sick Kids tagline suggests, Together We Will.

Me and Maria

Love, happiness and healthy kids!