September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Families, caregivers, charities and research groups observe September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, 15,780 children under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer every year, and in 1983, I became one of those children. Here I want to share my story of diagnosis, treatment and survival to help spotlight Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this September. 

Diagnosis
At six years old, I was looking forward to a long summer vacation at my local youth program. Every year my friends and I went there to swim, roller-skate, do arts and crafts, etc. However, that year I started feeling sharp pains in my legs and arms that kept me bedridden most of the summer. 

Doctors said it was probably growing pains, but my parents didn’t believe it since I never outgrew my clothes. I also got red spots that looked like chicken pox, but that wasn’t it since I already had chicken pox. Other symptoms emerged such as a low fever, fatigue and bruises, which eventually made doctors suspicious of childhood leukemia.

Because leukemia symptoms can be mistaken for less serious conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose early on. About six months went by before I finally got tested and diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).

Leukemia – So what is it? 
Leukemia is a cancer that starts in the bone-marrow with an abnormal increase of blood cells. It accounts for approximately one in every three childhood cancers, and usually categorized as either acute or chronic.

American Cancer Society estimates that 3,500 children are diagnosed with leukemia every year. Types of leukemia include:

  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) – the most common type
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
  • Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JML)

Treatment – What we did
After being diagnosed, my family booked tickets to fly to Honolulu for treatment. I remember my mom was getting her hair done that day and ran out of the salon, even though she was still in the middle of a perm. She didn’t look great, but I think it was understandable considering the circumstances.  

We checked in at Kapiolani Medical Center, or Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children back then, and doctors ran countless tests to figure out my treatment. They looked at a lot of things like my age, the type and stage of my leukemia, and my overall health. They came up with a Roadmap that charted out my treatment for the next three and a half years.

Back then, several treatment options were available including radiation therapy and bone marrow transplants. However, mine was done through chemotherapy, a combination of drugs in the form of pills, injections and intravenous transfer. 

I remember the doctors gave me a comic book to help explain chemotherapy. The comic depicted chemotherapy as a blind superhero who accidently kills both the bad and good cells. The “blind” destruction of both cancer and healthy cells causes all kinds of side effects like hair loss, body aches, digestive problems, and fatigue…just to name a few.

Survival - All pau!
After more than three years of flying to Honolulu for treatment my Roadmap was finally complete. Doctors performed a biopsy to make sure the cancer was gone before finally telling me that I didn’t need chemotherapy anymore! I returned to school as a full time sixth grader, and after five years of annual tests, doctors declared me in complete remission, free from cancer!

Medicine has come a long way since the 80’s and if I were diagnosed today, my Roadmap would be very different. Treatments are shorter and survival rates are higher than before. Although the causes for leukemia are still unknown, research has suggested radiation, chemical exposure, and family genetics as possible causes. 

Today, researchers continue to improve the detection, treatment and quality of life for leukemia patients, partly because of the education created by Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.