This fall, 8-year-old Tom headed back to school in Colorado Springs for fourth grade. Like many boys his age, he loves Lego®sets, playing Minecraft and showing off his swimming skills.
But unlike most of his classmates, Tom can’t fend off many of the bugs and germs that lurk in elementary school classrooms, such as chicken pox or whooping cough. He also can’t risk serious crashes on the playground or big falls on the soccer field. And he’ll likely have to miss multiple days of school for doctors’ appointments.
That’s because Tom is still recovering from more than three years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer.
The need for better treatments
Tom was diagnosed with ALL when he was just 3 years old. Today, after several rounds of chemotherapy and steroids, Tom’s cancer is in remission. While these aggressive therapies got rid of his cancer, they also caused side effects for which he continues to undergo treatment at Children’s Hospital Colorado – something that is still all too common among pediatric cancer patients and survivors.
During treatment, Tom was in such intense pain from the steroids that he stopped walking for a month. Now, his immune system is compromised, making him more susceptible to illness. To boost his ability to fight disease, he receives monthly infusions at Children’s Colorado in Colorado Springs. His liver is also damaged from chemotherapy, which caused his spleen to enlarge, putting him at higher risk of organ rupture.
Sofia, Tom’s mom, is relieved that her son’s cancer is gone, but there is worry in her voice as she talks about sending Tom off to school. Doctors at Children's Colorado do their best to allay her concerns, but she is nonetheless anxious about the possibility of something happening to her firstborn child again – a fall, an illness or even relapse.
Research – for cancer prevention, treatments and cures
Right now, doctors don’t know what causes ALL, which strikes about 3,000 children under 20 years old in the United States each year. However, what was once a fatal disease – before 1962 no children survived an ALL diagnosis – now has a survival rate of more than 90 percent. This is one of the best rates among pediatric cancers, thanks to research and new treatments being developed at Children’s Colorado and across the country.
Still, there is much work to do to help kids thrive long after surviving cancer. Donations from the community have made it possible for Children’s Colorado to recruit the top physician-scientists in the world, such as pediatric hematologist-oncologist Dr. Terry Fry, who are seeking to better understand this disease, determine what causes it, eliminate its recurrence and, importantly for kids like Tom, discover new therapies with fewer complications.
Dr. Fry is currently working on targeting leukemia cells more effectively, while reducing side effects. These new therapies not only will help treat ALL, but possibly other cancers, such as brain tumors, and even autoimmune diseases down the road.