Childhood Cancer

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September is national childhood cancer awareness month. Every year, 10,000 children are diagnosed with cancer, the leading cause of disease-related death for children. Dr. Ricardo Flores of the Texas Children’s Cancer Center, the largest cancer center for children in the U.S., will tell us more about the disease and advancements in treatment.

TED SIMONS: September is national childhood cancer awareness month. Cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death for children and over 10,000 kids every year are diagnosed with the disease. But advances in treating pediatric cancer continue and here with the latest in that fight is Dr. Ricardo Flores of the Texas Children's Cancer Center, the largest cancer center for children in the country. Good to have you here, welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

DR. RICARDO FLORES: Thank you for the invitation.

TED SIMONS: Pediatric cancer. It's a lot of kids. How common is this?

DR. RICARDO FLORES: Well, basically we diagnose about 16,000 kids a year in the United States alone. When you think worldwide we are talking about 250,000 patients. So that's about one kid every three minutes. The family receives the devastating news that their kids have a catastrophic disease.

TED SIMONS: The most common forms of childhood cancer, what do you see most often?

DR. RICARDO FLORES: The most common one is leukemia and after leukemia, we have lymphoma, which is cancer of the lymphatic tissue. After that, we have brain tumors and also we have tumors of the muscles and bone.

TED SIMONS: And when you're treating pediatric cancer, compare now to adult-onset cancer. The dynamics have to be different.

DR. RICARDO FLORES: The dynamics are definitely different. But I think it's very, very interesting, because our patients actually, they take the news much better than adults I think. Their life changes and they understand that there's something different but they become used to everything to their new lifestyle, even when their hair falls, the parents are more concerned than the kids actually are concerned. And you see them playing in the air, they seem happy and energetic, so they're not brought down by the disease.

TED SIMONS: That's an interesting point because you don't think about that. They are kids and they haven't had maybe the experiences that the adults have had and they don't look back wistfully.

DR. RICARDO FLORES: Definitely. And, for example, I specialize in bone tumors, and it's impressive sometimes. Sadly, we have to do big surgeries, morbid surgeries, even amputations or prosthesis, and it's very, very interesting to see how within a few weeks, they're just like up and going like nothing happened.

TED SIMONS: The best way to I.D., early signs of childhood cancer? What do you see out there?

DR. RICARDO FLORES: Well, basically, what we see more often is that the patients or the kids at home get more tired. They can have frequent bleeding episodes or easy bruising. They have frequent fevers. They have pallor or head pain, bone pain but what we usually tell the parents is that you seem to notice that there's something different with the kid. They keep taking them to the pediatrician and they don't get better, they get treated for a flu or some sort of a respiratory infection but they don't get better. At that point you have to use your sixth sense as a parent and understand there's something that needs to be looked at more in detail.

TED SIMONS: And pediatric cancer in general, we can get into specifics if you would like but how treatable once you get a hold of these kids?

DR. RICARDO FLORES: Well, it's very interesting. What we try to make aware the public of during this month is that over the past four decades we've made great progress in cancer treatment in kids. Especially because we do a lot of research and with the help of the public funding and the government funding. So we have improved from probably around 20% survival in kids before the '70s to 85% survival as it is currently.

TED SIMONS: My goodness.

DR. RICARDO FLORES: But what we have to understand is that it's still the number one killer disease-wise in the nation. So it is still a huge problem. So in order to cure that 15% that we have left, we want to reach the 100% survival in our kids, we need the support from our public.

TED SIMONS: Yeah, indeed. You know, we hear a lot about immunotherapy in cancer research and you hear a lot about with adult cancer. Is that a treatment option for kids?

DR. RICARDO FLORES: This is one of the newest research modalities or treatment modalities that we are investigating right now. And that's why we're talking about the support with the funding because we need to get the type of treatment modalities further along because the type of treatment that we use is called conventional therapy and that includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. So for the past 20 years we have been able to I would say optimize the treatment using those tools but we need new tools, we need newer treatment is one of those is immunotherapy. We have precision medicine in which we try to treat the specifics of the disease of your children, of your kid, rather than chemotherapy that is more generalized.

TED SIMONS: I was going to bring up that fact. Genetics, risk factors, what's out there as far as pediatric cancer?

DR. RICARDO FLORES: For pediatric cancer, we're doing lots of progress in that aspect, too, which is, for example, with a simple blood test try to analyze in a comprehensive manner the genes, the proteins in the blood of the kid, and then come up with a individualized picture of what type of therapy or what type of drug will actually work for you.

TED SIMONS: You've talked about the advances in treatment and advances in research but when it comes to a parent hearing that news, it's got to be devastating, it's always devastating. Are you seeing, though, improvement in the outlook or less negativity and more hope from these parents once they get this diagnosis?

DR. RICARDO FLORES: Definitely. At the beginning it's very devastating but with the social support and the family support and the support of the cancer center, they get over that initial shock and then realize this is something we have to deal with and we're going to do whatever is in our hands and when they see other kids surviving, 85% of the kids surviving and many of our medical staff, nurses and volunteers are survivors of cancer, so in that case, they understand that this is something that is treatable and you have to do your best.

TED SIMONS: Well, continue the good fight, congratulations on your success and we hope for your continued success on that front. Thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it. Tuesday on "Arizona Horizon," it's time for our monthly review of the latest science news with ASU physicist Lawrence Krauss. And we'll hear from the new poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Dr. Ricardo Flores : Texas Children's Cancer Center

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