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Kids with cancer: Part I: Families facing devastating diagnosis need support

Nate Lowell, 11, receives treatment at Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital for ALCL, a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma.

Nate Lowell, 11, receives treatment at Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital for ALCL, a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma.

— It was on that ambulance trip to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse that pediatric nurse Sharon Luke made a troubling discovery.

“When we got to Upstate, she went to the oncology floor and said, ‘I think I’ve got one for you,’’ Melissa said. “And they told us they thought he had lymphoma.”

A frightening diagnosis

Nate’s story, sadly, is not rare. According to the American Cancer Society, about 11,630 children under the age of 15 in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer this year. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children younger than 15 years old (after accidents). About 1,310 children are expected to die from cancer in 2013.

The most common kinds of pediatric cancer are leukemia, brain and other nervous system tumors, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumors, lymphoma, retinoblastoma and bone cancers. Nate Lowell was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Stage III anaplastic large-cell lymphoma (ALCL). The cancer caused tumors to grow on his lungs, tumors so huge they were bruising him from the inside out and crushing his airway.

“The oncologist told us that he would have died within three days,” Melissa said. “[The tumor] would have crushed his windpipe within three days. But all he had was the cough, nothing else. We would have stayed at St. Luke’s if that other doctor hadn’t come in. I just want to hug and kiss her, and I don’t even remember her name.”

Fortunately, at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital, the Lowells found themselves in the very capable hands of Dr. Irene Cherrick, one of the nation’s top pediatric oncologists. Cherrick said the diagnosis process varies from patient to patient depending on what type of cancer the child has, but there are some commonalities regardless of diagnosis.

“When we get a phone call from a pediatrician who’s concerned about a malignancy, one of us will handle it. There’s an attending physician on 24/7,” Cherrick said. “We talk to the referring doctor and hear a little bit about the story and their concerns. Most often, the majority of the time, the child is admitted immediately to the hospital and we’ll start the workup. Some can do the workup as an outpatient. If you can do it in an environment that’s better for the child and the family, you do.”

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