Supporting Young Patients and Families Through Their Cancer Care

Across the country, thousands of children and teens diagnosed with cancer are facing life-threatening struggles. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month – a time to recognize children and survivors affected by pediatric cancer in order to raise awareness and continue the research and treatment of the disease.

There has been remarkable progress made in treatment and survivorship over the years – 85 percent of children with cancer now survive 5 years or more. Tanja Gruber, MD, director of the Bass Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Diseases at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, says there is more to be done. In this Q&A, she discusses the future of pediatric cancer treatment and research to help young patients.

Q: How is Stanford Medicine Children’s Health helping families face a cancer diagnosis?

It’s important to me that patients have state-of-the-art care and a team that really cares about them. It’s emotionally very difficult to have a child with cancer, and we know it’s very much a family affair.

When a child is diagnosed, I always make sure to have a conversation with the family about their situation: “Are the parents both working? Is it in office or at home? What are your schedules like? Are there siblings” Asking these kinds of questions is important so we as care providers know what resources the family needs and how we can support the parents, any siblings, and their child through treatment.

Q: We’re hearing more about “precision oncology” and other advancements. What are some innovations in pediatric cancer care?

The goal of “precision oncology” treatments is to kill cancer cells in a very targeted manner, with minimal damage to the body’s healthy cells. These treatments take advantage of the unique biological features of cancer cells.

There are several initiatives underway. At Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, we’re making a lot of headway in immunotherapy. We have a large chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy program, which boosts a child’s own immune system to target specific proteins on cancer cells and fight the disease. This has been used for cancer patients who have types of leukemia and lymphoma, and there are currently clinical trials exploring this treatment for other types of cancers and tumors, like brain tumors or solid tumors on the periphery of the body.

We are currently identifying ways to make stem cell transplantation safer, including using new antibody-based methods instead of traditional chemotherapy or radiation to prepare patients’ bodies for the transplant. There’s also a work with advancing gene therapy.

In pediatrics, it’s not enough to treat the disease itself. Including other health care professionals as part of a long-term holistic treatment plan for the child and their family – whether it’s physical therapy or mental health – is crucial.

Q: What is Stanford Medicine Children’s Health doing to provide care to underserved communities?

An important piece is developing trust with patients from underrepresented groups. When we’re consenting a family, we frequently take a longer time during that process to educate them on the benefits and why we’re doing this clinical trial. I think it’s important to take the extra time to help families understand otherwise they won’t enroll and won’t have an opportunity to benefit.

Clinical trials are offered at major metropolitan areas, and patients who live in outlying, rural communities often have difficulty participating in those trials due to challenges with transportation and housing. At Stanford Children’s, we work with community-based organizations, like the Ronald McDonald House and Jacob’s Heart, to help and provide resources, so patients can get to their appointments and the care they need.

Q: What can we all do to help patients who are diagnosed with cancer and their families?

Caring for a child as they battle a serious illness can be a stressful and scary time, so it’s important not to forget about supporting the whole family. We, as a community, need to make sure parents can take time off from work to bring their children in for appointments, especially when parents notice something is off, and have time to take care of themselves. This is critical in helping families through the treatment process.

Tanja Gruber, MD, PhD, joined a U.S. News webinar as a panelist to discuss the broader cancer landscape.


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