When he was born four years ago, Quanny Ray was a seemingly healthy child. His mother, Bridget Ray, said Quanny aged normally until he began regressing physically after becoming a toddler. He lacked energy, had difficulty balancing, vomited regularly and had little appetite. Bridget and her husband, Robert, took Quanny to the doctor, who told them their 21-month-old son had brain cancer.
“We were floored. We never experienced anything like that with anyone in our family,” Bridget said. “… At that age he was such a tiny little thing. We just cried.”
September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Cancer is more common in adults, but the disease still touches thousands of children every year. According to the nonprofit CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, cancer causes 53% of deaths from disease among Americans age 0 to 19. Childhood cancer not only causes hurt to families, it is also different from adulthood cancer.
Children typically do not smoke, sit in tanning booths or engage in other activities that increase the chance of getting cancer. The causes of their cancer are linked less to environmental and choice factors than adult patients. Other than that, scientists are unsure what causes childhood cancer.
“We know that there are mutations or changes in the genes in the cancer cells that form somehow, someway, for some reason,” Dr. Mike Ferguson, an oncologist with Riley Children’s Health, said. “We don’t exactly know why. That doesn’t mean it’s inherited from a parent, from a mother or father. It just means something happened to change those genes.”
Because the causes of childhood cancer are different, the most common kinds of cancer are different as well. According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, the most common cancers overall are lung and breast. Among 0- to 19-year-olds the most common cancers are leukemia, which accounts for 29% of cases, followed by brain and nervous system cancers such as Quanny’s, which account for 26% of cases.
Treating children is also different than treating adults. Ferguson said children are more resistant to side effects of chemotherapy than adults, so oncologists can use more aggressive and frequent treatment. However, Ferguson added less than 4% of the National Cancer Institute’s research funding goes to childhood cancer research, making it difficult to develop safe non-chemotherapy treatments for children.
Quanny was lucky in this regard. In January, after over a year of chemotherapy, Riley Hospital for Children prescribed Quanny a new medication, larotrectinib, that targeted his genes making the cancer. The Food and Drug Administration only approved the drug a month before Quanny began taking larotrectinib, but it caused his cancer to go into remission.
Quanny’s recovery is representative of many cases of childhood cancer. Dr. Bassem Razzouk, medical director of the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, said the five-year survival rate for cancer patients age 19 and younger is just under 85%. The rate for cancer patients in general is 55.6%.
However, remission doesn’t mean the battle is over. According to CureSearch, nearly 60% of childhood cancer survivors experience long-term side effects from treatment. Razzouk said chemotherapy at a young age could cause hearing loss, lung disease, stunted growth, osteoporosis, loss of vision and infertility. These conditions can have emotional and social consequences.
“It might be difficult for them to be involved in normal relationships and may be difficult for them to find companions of the same sex or the other sex, because they are blind in one eye,” Razzouk said. “Some of them may be short if they got the condition at a young age. That may affect their self-esteem.”
Thankfully, Quanny appears to have no such side effects. Since Quanny started taking larotrectinib, the tumor shrank by over 99%, and his parents say he now has all the youthful energy expected from a boy who is 4 years old. Robert still remembers when he first heard the news.
“I was thanking God and all that he did,” Robert said. “He put all that together for the recovery of Quanny. When the doctor told me he was ecstatic, it made me happy. I’m a pretty big guy, so I went to hug him and almost knocked him down. It was wonderful.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
Support the cause
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, so consider supporting local organizations helping fund cancer research or services.
Little Red Door Cancer Agency
1801 N. Meridian St.
Hoosier Cancer Research Network
500 N. Meridian St. #100
Riley Hospital for Children
705 Riley Hospital Drive
Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital
2001 W. 86th St.