A child’s wish: Hope for survival

A child’s wish: Hope for survival
© Getty Images

A birthday party is such a magical day for a young child — the laughter, the smiles, balloons and the much-anticipated opening of presents. There is cake with candles, representing a wish and hope for the next year. But imagine a child who is stricken with cancer, who extinguishes the candles with a labored effort. He looks you in the eyes and whispers that his wish is to survive. It’s a devastating reality to know he might not.

And why not? Because there are still no cures for pediatric cancers, the number one killer by disease of children in the United States.

ADVERTISEMENT
Each year in the United States, almost 2,000 sets of parents and grandparents will celebrate what will be their child’s or grandchild’s last birthday. These tragic final birthday parties take place in hospitals or in hospice care because there are no more options. The average age of diagnosis for children with cancer is 6. The average age of death is 8. With the remarkable progress made in other areas of modern medicine, why do effective treatments for childhood cancer remain so elusive?

 

A key challenge is lack of federal funding for research. In 2015, pediatric cancer research received only 4 percent of the federal government cancer research funding. That’s less than $200 million to cover the 12 major types of childhood cancer, originating in various parts of the body, and the hundreds of subtypes. By contrast, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that prostate cancer research received $228 million and breast cancer research more than $500 million.

According to “Cancer Facts and Figures 2017,” the American Cancer Society estimated that 10,270 new cancer cases would be diagnosed among children ages 0 to 14 in the United States in 2017 and 1,190 would die from the disease; cancer incidence rates have been rising slightly each year since 1975. However, the NCI states that in the past 40 years, only four drugs have been approved specifically for use in children, compared with hundreds of drugs developed for adult use.

As a result, children are left with hand-me-down adult chemotherapies, which ravage their developing organs. In fact, the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation reports, “Ninety-five percent of childhood cancer survivors will have a significant health-related issue by the time they are 45 years of age, issues that are side effects of either the cancer or, more commonly, the result of its treatment.” These significant health-related issues can lead to lifelong illness or death.

We can do better than this. We must do better. Right now, private contributions to nonprofit foundations such as the one I founded — Cannonball Kids’ cancer — are holding down the fort, but it is not enough. Children are dying every day and many more are currently on hospice care. Innovative and less-toxic research ideas are out there, but our government needs to increase funding to get these ideas from the bench to bedside.

Specifically, the government should increase the level of federal funding allocated to pediatric cancer research so we can enroll more children in innovative, clinical trials for targeted therapies, which are less toxic. And we encourage Congress to pass the Childhood Cancer STAR Act, which enjoys strong bipartisan support. This is how we can truly make a faster, more impactful change in the number of children dying from cancer.

The lives of our children are at stake, but they can’t fight this battle alone. They need our help. Funding research is the key that will unlock new treatments and therapies designed specifically for children’s bodies. Policymakers can make this happen.

Melissa Wiggins is the founder and executive director of Cannonball Kids’ cancer, a nonprofit foundation established in 2015 with the focus of funding innovative and accessible research for pediatric cancer and educating for change. Her son, Cannon, battled stage IV neuroblastoma, diagnosed when he was 20 months old.