Leaving childhood cancer behind
Who: Brock Taraba, leukemia survivor, Niagara Falls
Dr Brian Nieman, researcher, Toronto
What: Dr Nieman is funded by the Canadian Cancer Society to study changes in brain structure and function in children who received chemotherapy to treat leukemia.
Why: Understanding the impact of chemotherapy on brain development will lead to treatments that not only fight leukemia but also allow survivors to have long, healthy lives.
Lori and Steve Taraba proudly watched their 18-year-old twin boys, Conner and Brock, graduate from high school in 2015. The celebration was particularly poignant for Brock, who was diagnosed with cancer as a baby.
Lori remembers preparing for the worst in 1998 when she was told that 10-month-old Brock had high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of blood cancer that had a survival rate of only 18 per cent.
Brock endured 26 months of chemotherapy followed by 10 days of radiation treatment that targeted his head. The family worried about side effects. While cancer treatments destroy cancer cells, they can also damage healthy cells. In children, whose bodies are still developing, health problems can last for months or years after cancer treatment.
Brock beat the odds and survived his cancer. However, he is still coping with long-term side effects, including difficulty with math, languages, speech and fine motor skills.
“The doctor told us there would be changes with Brock,” Lori says. “We have focused on what we need to do to help him reach his full potential.”
To help kids like Brock, the Canadian Cancer Society is funding Dr Brian Nieman, a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children. He is examining brain structure and function in children with leukemia who, like Brock, underwent chemotherapy at a young age, in order to understand the changes this treatment causes.
“As these kids get older, they tend to have problems in school and maintaining employment,” Dr Nieman explains.
Children with leukemia receive a combination of drugs. Dr Nieman will also study each drug individually to determine their effects on the brain. He hopes his team can isolate the ones most harmful for brain development.
“By better understanding how each chemotherapy drug impacts the developing brain, in the future we might be able to change treatments or provide therapy after treatment to improve these children’s quality of life,” he says.
Brock isn’t letting anything hold him back. He plans to go to college to study horticulture and pursue his goal to work with plants and trees.
“The research the Canadian Cancer Society is funding to improve the lives of kids after treatment is extremely important,” Lori says. “The first priority is saving children’s lives, but we also need treatment options that will help more kids to thrive and leave cancer behind them.”
Great progress has been made
Some cancers, such as thyroid and testicular, have survival rates of over 90%. Other cancers, such as pancreatic, brain and esophageal, continue to have very low survival rates.