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Childhood Cancer Therapy: A Lifelong Burden

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The warlike approach to cancer treatment makes some children casualties for the rest of their lives.Trials of alternative therapies are rarely allowed, and when they are, it is only as adjuncts to conventional therapy.

The warlike approach to cancer treatment makes some children casualties for the rest of their lives.Trials of alternative therapies are rarely allowed, and when they are, it is only as adjuncts to conventional therapy.

When a second opinion is sought, parents should try to ensure that the first diagnosis is hidden from the second doctor, to avoid unconscious bias.

Children who survive five years after conventional cancer therapy are counted as successes. But they may have battled through the pain, weakness, and disfigurement of therapy only to experience a reduced quality of life as long as they live.

A September 2003 paper in Journal of the American Medical Association the documents a recent survey of the consequences of childhood cancer therapy. The survey found that survivors of childhood cancer therapy often experience ongoing pain, organ disease, infertility, and, most distressingly of all, further cancers caused by their original treatment. Some also battle ongoing anxiety and distress. The worse their ongoing symptoms, the lower their level of education and the more likely they are to be unemployed or underemployed.

he health effects reported in the survey correlate with the intensity of the therapy. Those treated for leukemia generally experience less serious consequences than those treated for tumours, although leukemia treatment can still result in serious psychological problems, cirrhosis of the liver, heart damage, cognitive dysfunction, obesity, and bone disorders. Consequences are worse for treatment of cancers in bone or the central nervous system, which are associated with the most aggressive surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Treatment with surgery, alkylating chemotherapy drugs or radiation to the head, chest, neck, or underarm increases the risk of consequences independent of the type of cancer. Treatment for brain tumours has the worst health outcomes. Almost half the survivors surveyed (43.6 percent) were adversely affected in at least one way. Other recent studies have shown even higher levels of survivors adversely affected by cancer treatment: from 58 percent in a 1998 British study to 69 percent in a US study published in 2000.

Assessing the Damage

One way to look at this data is that modern cancer therapy exacts a price for all the lives that it saves, but the price is gradually going down, and eventually medical therapy will be able to eliminate cancers without such serious consequences. The 2003 survey reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, showed no reduction in consequences over the period of diagnosis from 1970 through to 1986.

Another way to look at this data is that the long-term results of allopathic treatments are yet another failure of the warlike approach to cancer.

What is not known from these studies is what would have happened if alternative treatments had been used or if the treatments had been less aggressive. Would more children have died? This is currently impossible to answer because trials of alternative therapies are rarely allowed, and when they are, it is only as adjuncts to conventional therapy. Thus we cannot answer the question of whether alternative therapies are a more or less reasonable choice than conventional therapies for parents and their child.

Advice for Parents

Being faced with a diagnosis of cancer in a child is probably one of the most agonizing events a parent might face. This is exacerbated when parents are aware of the damage that conventional cancer chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation can cause and would like to investigate alternatives. What can you do?

First, a diagnosis of cancer should always be questioned, particularly when the cancer is not a physically obvious tumour. This is not the same as “being in denial.” According to the book Cancer Industry (Equinox Press, 1995), false diagnosis of cancer is quite common. To ensure a child is not treated unnecessarily, or with the wrong treatment, at least one more opinion should be sought. When a second opinion is sought, parents should try to ensure that the first diagnosis is hidden from the second doctor, to avoid unconscious bias.

Second, once parents accept that their child really does have cancer, they may wish to seek out other recommendations on treatment than those their doctor provides. Ralph Moss, a well-known cancer industry critic, provides a service that reviews treatment recommendations (cancerdecisions.com). He is uniquely well versed in both allopathic and alternative therapies and, because he does not perform the treatments himself, he does not benefit financially from recommending one over another.

Third, parents should be aware that if they decide to defy the medical establishment and seek alternative treatment, their child might be treated against their will, even if the child is also opposed to mainstream treatment. In 2002, seventeen-year-old Bethany Hughes, a Calgary teenager, was forced to undergo blood transfusions to counter the effects of potent chemotherapy even though she and her mother objected. In 1999, a court order was obtained to force thirteen-year-old Tyrell Dueck from Saskatoon to undergo a leg amputation and more chemotherapy, even though he and both of his parents objected. In 2003, a father was charged with kidnapping his twelve-year-old son when he defied a Utah court order and went to Houston to solicit a second opinion from Dr. Burzynski, a cancer specialist who uses non-toxic proteins known as antineoplastons. Given these legal challenges, some parents may wish to consult a lawyer.

No matter what course of treatment is chosen for children with cancer, parents should educate themselves about the disease and the spectrum of treatments, and not be afraid to question doctors and other health workers. It is not just your children’s lives that are at stake. If their lives are saved, the quality of the rest of their lives could be reduced.

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