By Teresa Liccardi, M.D.
It was Oct. 31, 1973 and at 13 years old all I wanted to do was get back home to trick or treat with my friends. I had spent enough time with doctors trying to decide what was the orange-sized lump on my neck. Then from the backseat I saw the look on my parents face – a look of gaunt pale helpless fear and desperation; a look of two parents who had just been told that their daughter had cancer.
In the United States, September is dedicated as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. According to data collected by the National Cancer Institute, cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among children and adolescents contributing to 12 percent of all deaths in children under the age of 20. Approximately 13,000 children from birth to 19 years of age are diagnosed with cancer annually. One in 315 children will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday. I am sad, but proud to say that I know of more than one of these young heroes now.
The rates of cancer in children according to the American Cancer Society facts and figures 2011, demonstrate an overall increase in the incidence of childhood cancers of 21 percent in the last 36 years. The causes of cancers in children are for the most part still not well understood, yet research into causes and cures is vastly underfunded. The National Cancer Institute spends only 4 percent of its budget on pediatric cancers. Over 40,000 children 19 and under undergo treatment every year, yet half of all chemotherapeutic agents used to fight pediatric cancers are over 25 years old.
I am now 40 years out from my childhood bout with cancer. I was given an amazing gift to have come through so many years healthy despite my initial diagnosis. Compared to the 1970s when close to 50 percent of children died from cancer within five years of diagnosis, now 4 out of 5 children have at least a five-year survival. However, two-thirds of childhood cancer survivors will suffer chronic diseases related to their cancer and treatment.
Yet these statistics don’t speak of the financial and emotional burden that childhood cancers inflict on families. Children with cancer, their parents and siblings are all victims of the disease. Cancers and their therapies can be disfiguring, physically exhausting and deplete a child’s ability to fight infection, leading to social isolation and depression, as well as academic struggles. Parents experience heart-wrenching pain watching their children suffer and can be economically devastated by financial responsibilities. Siblings may not receive as much attention as the child with cancer that requires immediate and continual vigilance though they may be very sad and frightened not understanding what is happening to their brothers or sisters.
Forty years later I am in a Red Bank office building waiting for a meeting when a stranger literally dances – into his own office – introduces himself as Mr. Robert Heugle and immediately asks, “Would you like to hear about my children and angels?”
Taken aback and not sure how to handle this gregarious gentleman, I hesitantly said, “Yes.”
Well, I was late for my meeting, but in those few minutes I learned of Mr. Robert Heugle’s and a host of other community members’ passion: The Frances Foundation for Kids Fighting Cancer. I was reliving in every story, my own personal memories of my families’ emotional and financial pain from my cancer. Here was a man who was immortalizing the love of his mother who had also passed from cancer, by helping to relieve the suffering of children with cancer and their families suffering as well.
Started in 2004, The Frances Foundation has a focused, devoted commitment to bring smiles to kids fighting cancer. Over these last nine years they have provided financial assistance to impoverished families burdened by their child’s cancer, and given these courageous children their special wishes for a moment of happiness and pleasure. Children have jammed with their favorite rock stars, gone to baseball games, attended summer camps, cuddled new puppies, and families have been sent on special trips as part of the journey of healing.
Having been given such a special gift of life myself, I think there is no better way to say thank you than to pay it forward to someone else in need. The Frances Foundation, and many other organizations are a testament to this idea.
Yes, medical cures are the ultimate therapy for curing cancer but smiles are the ultimate medicine for our souls.
Dr. Teresa Liccardi, who is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology, maintains a clinic for hypertension and chronic kidney disease at the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank.