What It’s Like To: Cure a Child with Cancer

Frank Keller, M.D. Pediatric oncologist

Childhood cancer is like a journey that starts when you meet a new family, a new patient. Nobody expects children to have cancer. It’s literally unbelievable. So there’s this big element of shock and fear and grief. These truly are diseases that threaten the life of their beautiful child.

Years ago I took care of a young man who was fifteen and about six foot six, a tall basketball player, very athletic. He went from being very healthy to critically ill in the space of a few days. He got admitted to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning. I was at his bedside early that morning.

He was struggling to breathe because the lymph nodes in his throat were so swollen. He had to sit up; he couldn’t lie down. That’s the big warning flag for lymphoma. We’ve got to do something now. This is really an emergency. You kick into gear and do all the things you’re trained to do.

He had a rare form of cancer called Burkitt’s lymphoma. It has a very characteristic appearance under the microscope. Within a few hours, we were able to treat the lymphoma [with chemotherapy drugs] and see improvement quickly. With this disease, if you don’t do things correctly and quickly, it can be profoundly life-threatening. Getting it to [shrink quickly] allows you to go home and sleep a little.

When I meet someone with a diagnosis of Burkitt’s lymphoma, I know if we can get him past the life-threatening part, he will likely be cured of the disease. Right from the beginning, we were very optimistic. This particular lymphoma is so aggressive, if it’s going to relapse, it usually happens in six months or a year. When you get to a year, you can feel pretty good about the fact that it’s never going to come back.

The thing that was most profound to me was when this young man, a pretty typical teenager, brought his wife [to an annual checkup some years later] and they were having a baby. He overcame this tremendous adversity and moved on. That’s an important component of pediatric oncology. Our goal is not just to cure patients but to allow patients to grow up and live rich, full lives. Maybe even richer and fuller for the experience.

They’re still kids with their whole lives in front of them. To be able to watch them grow up, that’s what it’s all about. —As told to M.C.M.

Photo by Artem Nazarov