Pediatrician faces own cancer diagnosis with courage, but heart remains with pediatric patients
Dr. Sandra Peak calls for increase in pediatric cancer funding while fighting her own battle
"Dr. Peak we need to do a diagnostic ultrasound of your breast..."
Those words haunt me. I do not remember what was said next, mainly because a wave of fear and dread engulfed my body. The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer my life changed, forever. The greatest change, the greatest loss, is the sense of invulnerability you have when you are healthy, when you are not in pain.
What followed was a rapid fire series of tests, decisions, surgery, chemotherapy. The speed at which I felt my "normal self" being consumed by the world of cancer was overwhelming. Through it all, I kept thinking of all my patients and their families who have battled cancer through the years. I relived every moment of those cancer conversations. The anticipatory nausea I had prior to walking into a room to deliver the results every parent dreads. The shock and tears and anger that followed the horrific news I had just given.
And every time, I watched my sweet patients and their families turn and face their battle with a grace and dignity that astounded me.
Now that I am a cancer patient, I am even more astounded. I am lucky. I have breast cancer. I knew going into treatment that my cancer, Breast Cancer, receives the highest proportion of research funding by both the government and the private sector.
I knew that although my particular type of cancer tends to be aggressive, because of the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into breast cancer research each year that new chemotherapeutic, hormonal, immunologic and targeted agents now exist that raised my survival rate to 99 percent at 10 years. I also knew that amazing new medications exist for adults that make the side effects of chemotherapy far more tolerable than they were previously.Children with cancer are not as fortunate. Pediatric cancer is grossly underfunded. Last year alone, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) spent 96 percent of its budget on adult cancer and only 4 percent on childhood cancers.
The NCI funded $584 million for breast cancer and only $26.4 million for ALL pediatric cancers combined. This doesn't even begin to take into account private sector and pharmacologic company sponsored funding, which largely goes to support adult cancer research. In fact, research and development of new drugs from pharmaceutical companies makes up more than 60 percent of funding for adult cancer drugs and almost zero for pediatric cancers.
Because of this lack of funding, in the past TWENTY YEARS there have only been two chemotherapeutic agents approved by the FDA for the use in children. More than half of the chemotherapies used in children are over 25 years old. I cannot begin to imagine the COURAGE it would take to fight a cancer battle armed with the knowledge that my best weapons are more than 25 years old.Some people argue adults get cancer more frequently than children and that's why the funding is greater. But when you stop to consider productive years lost by a cancer diagnosis, the effects aren't even close to equivocal.
The average age for adult cancer diagnosis is 67 with an average number of years lost to cancer of 15. The average age of diagnosis for a child is 6 with the average number of years lost to cancer of 71 years.
SEVENTY-ONE years lost.
Imagine if we could have the HEART to change those numbers. Children with cancer could grow up, fall in love, and have their own children. Imagine if we used our BRAINS to find new ways to fund childhood cancer research. These young cancer survivors could go to college, create beautiful art, make new discoveries that could change our world and perhaps find a cure for cancer.
It's October and in case you haven't noticed the world has turned pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month. I am a breast cancer survivor. This message is for all the women in my life. My patients, their Mommies, my colleagues, friends and family. And, for all the women in their lives. One in eight of you will get breast cancer.
Many women think that because there has not been a case of breast cancer in their Family they do not need to be concerned. This is not true. Only 20 percent of breast cancers are familial. You are at risk for breast cancer if you have breasts.
About the author
Sandra Peak, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville. She earned a B.A. degree in English and psychology from Baylor University, which helps her communicate with the children she treats today. After Baylor, she followed her passion and attended medical school at University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Her pediatric residency was at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, where she participated in Angel One emergency helicopter transport service. While there, she also received the Jocelyn Elders Award for excellence in community service. Dr. Peaks returned to her home town of Dallas in 1998 and established a Pediatric Practice in neighboring Carrollton, Texas. She joined Cook Children's Physician Network in Lewisville in 2004.