Clearly, a five-year goal post isn’t enough. Success in pediatric cancer must be rethought not as a short-term cure but as a lifelong recovery. “Our goal should be the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years,” said Dr. Douglas Hawkins, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and chair of the Children’s Oncology Group, a coalition that unites the work of over 10,000 experts.
It’s taken decades to get to that challenge.
In 1956, Dr. David Nathan, president emeritus of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, began his oncology career at the National Cancer Institute. He administered chemotherapy to some of the earliest pediatric patients to receive the treatment. In the first test group, Nathan treated 50 children without a single survivor. It was, Nathan recalls, “a murderous time.”
“We made the kids so sick that most of the kids died from the therapy,” Nathan told me. “They died of infection, they died of bleeding, they fell apart.”
For Nathan, it was extremely difficult to cope. By his own admission, he lacked what he described as the “will” necessary to handle the trauma. “It took a certain personality that I just didn’t have,” he told me. He would go home and say to his wife, “I just killed another kid.” He went into adult hematology for 10 years to escape. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” he said.
In the early days of chemotherapy, knowing just how toxic chemotherapy agents were, doctors hesitated to treat patients with more than one agent simultaneously. How could you cause so much damage to a person who was already so sick? The answer was that you had to: If patients got only a single form of chemo, the cancer would mutate past it; only attacking the cancer with multiple agents at the same time prevented it from adapting. This multi-agent assault on the system is what causes people to suffer so palpably during treatment — the vomiting, the hair loss, the systemic illness we’ve come to recognize in cancer patients.