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Cancer preventative care a part of Rice's "Culture of Care"

By Susannah Koontz     9/7/11 7:00pm

Summer is winding down. Students are back in school. Tailgaters are brushing off their grills for weekend football games. Pennant races are heating up in Major League Baseball. These are some common thoughts we have about the ninth month of the year.

However, according to CureSearch for Children's Cancer, about 13,500 children and adolescents in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in 2011, and September now has a new meaning for them and their families. Furthermore, for the approximately 350,000 survivors of childhood cancers in the U.S., September is a reminder of their successful battle with their disease. Why? September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month – a time symbolized by gold ribbons and filled with the laughter and tears of the patients, survivors, families, friends and healthcare providers touched by pediatric malignancies.

Although they are rare, representing less than 1 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S., childhood cancers are nonetheless important. Standardized research studies conducted by cooperative research groups have enabled pediatric oncologists to achieve cure rates of almost 80 percent, a significant increase from 10 percent just 40 years ago. Some of these successful treatment strategies have now made their way into therapy programs for adult cancers. Moreover, the study of pediatric cancers has increased our understanding of the role of genetics in developing cancer. For example, retinoblastoma (the most common childhood intraocular cancer) serves as the prototype for childhood tumors involving gene inactivations.

By now you are probably scratching your head as to the significance of pediatric cancer to you, someone years beyond tricycles and teddy bears. What you may not realize is how important cancer is to young adults.

Such a realization has been made by oncologists worldwide within the past decade, prompting the creation of a special niche within the field – adolescent and young adult oncology. Patients in this group, defined as 15-39 years old, are a dynamic demographic, but one surprisingly vulnerable to cancer. One startling fact: recent data demonstrates that AYA patients have lower cure rates for some cancers compared to their younger and older counterparts.

Physiological, psychological, social and economic differences can account for much of the recently identified treatment experiences and outcomes differences the AYA patient may have. Just as important are the sense and understanding of cancer as it relates to all members of the AYA population.

In the spirit of the campus-wide initiative of "Culture of Care," I offer the following points of "CARE" on how cancer can impact the thoughts and behaviors of those of us in the Rice community, many of whom fall into the AYA category.

"C" is for cancer. As an oncology specialist, I long for my days as a toddler watching "Sesame Street" when the only thing "C" stood for was "cookie." However, that time in our lives is long gone. Knowing the common cancers affecting young adults will make you more aware of their associated signs and symptoms, thus helping you keep your own health status in-check should changes occur. More than likely, a change in your health won't return the diagnosis of cancer, but you may still require medical attention for what is ailing you. The staff at the Wellness Center and Health Services can assist you in this determination.

"A" is for advocacy. As you become aware of cancer and the issues facing patients and survivors of the AYA group, you can become, like me, an AYA oncology advocate, regardless of your personal experiences with cancer. Reach out to a classmate if they themselves are undergoing treatment for cancer or have a loved one doing so. Be understanding if a cancer survivor has a need, which may be a result from cancer treatment, that is different from yours. Become the voice for AYA oncology issues and raise funds for cancer research and patient programs by joining forces with groups such as Colleges Against Cancer, Stand-Up to Cancer, and LiveStrong Young Adult Alliance, to name a few.

"R" is for research. Many opportunities exist at Rice and within the Texas Medical Center to get involved with cancer research activities. Seek out the chance to be a part of groundbreaking research aimed at ending the disease either at Rice or in the Texas Medical Center. I'm forever grateful for the research opportunities I've had.

"E" is for education. Increase your knowledge about cancer by staying current on news in the field. Attend lectures to connect with people involved in the field (such as the one sponsored by CAC on Thursday, Sep. 22 regarding AYA oncology). Stop by events to learn more about disease awareness and prevention, such as those organized by CAC throughout the year.

Finally, screening and prevention are important aspects of cancer. Knowing appropriate screening techniques and their intervals is vital to catching cancer in earlier stages, when the chance of cure is highest. Routine clinical examinations by a healthcare professional of the skin, breasts and female reproductive organs should start now, if you haven't already done so (and, by the way, cancer doesn't care whether you're sexually active or not). Monthly self-examinations of skin, testicles and breasts should be as routine as paying your cell phone bill. And healthy lifestyle changes (e.g., eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, ending tobacco use, using alcohol in moderation, wearing sunscreen, etc.), especially when started early, can markedly reduce your chances of developing some cancers.

It's September. But cancer affects us all every day of the year.

Susannah Koontz is a clinical pharmacist and a McMurtry College Community Associate.

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