Family Matters

Childhood Cancer Has Its Gold-Ribbon Day

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Monday was National Childhood Cancer Awareness Day, a time set aside by the U.S. Senate to brandish gold ribbons and focus attention on pediatric cancer. It can all seem quite abstract when talking about the thousands of children who receive a cancer diagnosis each year. But break it down to smaller numbers, like the 46 kids who learn each day, somewhere in the United States, that they have cancer, and it makes you stop and think.

I met one of those children this summer. I had written about Ella Newmiller, who was told two years ago that she had an inoperable brain stem tumor the same week she celebrated her 5th birthday with all things princess-y. The story gained traction online to the extent that, that exposer of tall tales and urban legends (does deodorant cause breast cancer? Are plastic bottle bombs really being tossed into people’s yards?), weighed in. Status: True.

Ella is the same age as my son. She was in class with his good friend. For the first time, childhood cancer seemed big and scary and real. Ella’s prognosis was dismal, but the Newmillers are people of faith. They solicited prayer chains far and wide. It is impossible to know what has worked, but something has, because I saw Ella splashing in the pool in late July. She was happy, looked healthy and was completely disinterested in the woman in the black bathing suit who couldn’t help but gawk at her in wonder.

Though Ella is beating the odds,  pediatric cancer remains the top disease killer among U.S. children. The incidence of pediatric cancer jumped 12% from 1975 to 1995, attributable largely to improved detection. Yet for every $6 in research money per AIDS patient and every $1 per breast cancer patient, each child with cancer gets only 30 cents, according to the Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

Even from a kid’s perspective, that hardly seems fair.