Many people are not aware of the extent of childhood cancers in our country. More than 40,000 children undergo cancer treatment each year in the US. 1 in 5 will not respond to first-line standard therapies or will relapse within a few years. Patients with brain tumors that persist despite surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation face an especially bleak prognosis. For example, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) is virtually incurable. For some cancers, such as Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) or Hodgkin Lymphoma, second-line therapies are often successful. But for many others, such as cancers of the bone (Osteosarcoma and Ewing Sarcoma), liver (Hepatoblastoma), muscle (Rhabodmyosarcoma), and sympathetic nervous system (Neuroblastoma), curative options remain elusive if “Plan A” does not work. Despite numerous clinical trials testing new experimental treatments, a child’s insurance coverage and geographical location often limits their access to these options.
The age of a child at the time of diagnosis often make a big difference. Children with a form of ALL called Infant ALL fare a little better if they are diagnosed closer to their 1st birthday than those who are only a few months old. Teenagers with ALL do worse than their kindergarten or preschool counterparts.
Even those who respond to standard treatments and are free of their cancer are not out of the woods. 70% of long-term childhood cancer survivors have a chronic illness as a consequence of their cancer treatment. Survivors are at a higher risk of heart disease, strokes, and second cancers early in life. Some have even called this “premature aging.” Many survivors are left with depression and anxiety, and some even have post-traumatic stress disorder.
With the great progress made in treating childhood cancers, what is often overlooked is one terrifying fact: The percentage of children diagnosed with cancer is increasing every year. It has gone up 24% over the last 40 years. In 2014, 1 in 285 children in the US were diagnosed with cancer. That is about 2 children in every average-sized elementary school. Very little is being done to find out why the rates are increasing. It likely is not due to just one cause. It is probably a combination of environment, genetics, nutrition, and the lifestyle habits of parents and grandparents.
With the unacceptable rates of cure, risk of side effects from treatment, and increase in childhood cancer, new ways of attacking cancer in children and new ways of giving chemotherapy need to be identified. One vulnerable part of childhood cancer that has not been fully explored for treatment is glucose. Cancer's reliance on this energy source, which it obtains from the patient's blood stream, makes it particularly sensitive to changes in glucose levels. By applying low glucose states to the patient, such as with intermittent fasting and injecting insulin, we believe cancer will be more susceptible to chemotherapy. Therefore, smaller amounts of chemotherapy can be used, which often translates to fewer side effects for the patient such as hair loss, nausea, fatigue, and a compromised immune system. It also means less chance of having to be hospitalized. This way for giving chemotherapy has been around since the 1930s and is being studied in adults, but to our knowledge, it has never been studied in children. We are planning to have a research study open in the next few months to test this way of treating cancer in children.
One of the newest and fastest growing areas of cancer treatment is with personalized medicine. In this way, a patient's cancer treatment is tailored using information obtained from the patient’s cancer itself, instead of an average of a large groups of patients. We utilize a technology that tests the patient's cancer cells against numerous chemotherapy drugs and botanical or naturopathic treatments, and identifies genetic information of the cancer that make it susceptible to specialized small molecule drugs and antibodies. We feel this personalized cancer treatment is the wave of the future for beating cancer.
In addition, diet plays a major part to play in the body's natural immune system and ability to fight foreign invaders, such as viruses and cancer. Far too often in standard cancer treatment, the focus remains on the number of calories a child is taking in each day. The variety and quality of nutrition a patient takes in is very important. Replacing nutritional deficiencies, whether from poor intake or genetic variations, is part of our standard cancer treatment. This can be done by selecting certain foods to eat, taking nutritional supplements, or by direct replacement into a vein through an IV infusion. Additionally, avoiding environmental toxins in the air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat also helps support the immune system.
Building upon our experience in treating adults with Stage 3 and 4 cancers, as well as the experience of our colleagues from around the world, we are excited to offer our holistic, personalized, and integrative cancer treatment to children. This will be available as soon as our study has been approved by our Institutional Review Board.