My local newspaper recently ran pictures of participants in the annual Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Among them was a picture of two sisters walking in honor of their mother who had succumbed to breast cancer. She was 69.
There’s no doubt that breast cancer is a worthy cause. Who hasn’t known someone who has been afflicted with this disease, which is the second leading cause of cancer death among women in the U.S. But for those of us whose children have a pediatric cancer, the Avon Walk is another reminder that when it comes to high-profile cancer campaigns, the youngest patients — inexplicably — are relegated to the back-burner.
Of course a big part of pediatric cancer’s low profile is that like many causes, it’s a numbers game. According to the National Cancer Institute, some 13,400 children are diagnosed each year. A drop in the ocean, next to the NCI’s estimated 207,090 annual diagnoses for breast cancer and 217,730 for prostate cancer.
But there’s one obvious difference between childhood and adult cancers. Adults tend to get cancer later in life. According to the NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results, for the period of 2003 to 2007, the median age for a breast cancer diagnosis was 61. Just 0.9 percent of breast cancer deaths were in women under 35. Similarly the median age for a prostate cancer diagnosis was 67 with 0.1 percent of prostate cancer fatalities occurring in men under 45.
Compare this with pediatric brain tumors, the top cause of cancer deaths in children. The most common age group for diagnosis is between infancy and 8, and 32 percent of children including those with benign tumors, die within 10 years of diagnosis, according to the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States.
So why aren’t parents of pediatric cancer patients marching all over our national landmarks, demanding that Big Pharma and the NCI dedicate more funding and resources to the development of drugs for childhood cancers rather than for the larger more lucrative adult markets. And why aren’t we urging manufacturers to add the gold ribbon, the symbol of pediatric cancer awareness, to their merchandise?
I believe most of us have ongoing traumatic stress disorder. We are exhausted, mercurial, cynical and ever fearful.
But where does this leave more detached individuals? Some of them, I suspect, feel they have already paid their dues by buying pink ribbon products at a premium or participating in a fundraiser for an adult cancer.
Actor Reese Witherspoon, a mother of three and the honorary chairman of the Avon Foundation for Women,which supports breast cancer research and awareness, has spoken out for early detection of the disease stating that there is a 97 percent five-year survival rate when it is caught in its earliest stage.
For parents of pediatric brain tumor patients, as well other childhood cancers, there is usually no early detection. The single risk for childhood cancer is being a child. Most of us would be thrilled to hear about a 97 percent five-year survival rate. Good for Witherspoon for speaking up for breast cancer. Now can someone with the Hollywood wow-factor please speak up for pediatric cancer patients?
Suzanne Leigh is a freelance writer and mother of two daughters. She blogs about her life as a bereaved mother at: www.themourningafternatasha.wordpress.com