When Melanie Clark tells people she is a pediatric oncology nurse, the next thing out of their mouth is very predictable. “That must be very depressing,” Clark recounts about the inevitable follow up question.
It’s her answer that’s probably the most surprising.
“It truly is not sad,” said Clark, who has worked at Mission Health’s cancer center for 22 years. “ These children are wonderful, they are full of joy, full of life and at any given time, we hear laughter, will see them playing and the nurses are laughing with them.”
The outcomes for children with cancer are far more optimistic than with other populations. For instance, Clark said a child diagnosed with leukemia has an 85-90 percent chance of survival, whereas the adult survival rate is almost 20 percentage points less.
Clark explains that children have not generally been exposed to the environmental toxins and medications as adults.
“That’s good because when we do a treatment, we’re usually just treating one thing,” Clark said. “With adults, we see diabetes, heart problems or kidney problems, which affect how you treat them. The other good thing with children is their bodies and cells are very pure, which means cancer drugs tend to work very well.”
Clark said there are generally 25 to 30 new childhood cancer cases diagnosed in the area each year, but noted cases are followed until the children age out, which is generally between the ages of 18 and 22. The hospital is part of the Children’s Oncology Group, an international organization that regulates and collects data on children if the family consents.
“Because we are part of this group, we can offer the latest and greatest in teaching options just as if were part of teaching college,” Clark said. “This way, we can keep these children close to home where there’s family and community support. We are privileged to be part of new treatment options and studies, too.”
She works on the pediatric floor where there are four dedicated rooms on the back hallway for cancer patients.
Types of cancer
Clark said the most prevalent type of cancer locally is leukemia, followed by tumors that can appear on a bone, kidney, nerve or even the brain.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to pediatric cancer, no set of symptoms,” Clark said. “It is just very rare and very random.”
There is also no set of symptoms that can indicate cancer, either. A lot of times a child can be very tired and achy, similar to having a flu or virus. Once cancer has been pinpointed as the issue, there are a variety of treatments, most often a combination of chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.
“The newest thing is targeted therapies,” Clark said. “We send a piece of tumor off for testing and can test tumor for specific markers. There are certain drugs to target that marker. It’s a relatively new concept, so we are just now seeing it be an option.”
One of the many activities available to children in the hospital is an “Arts for Life” program where volunteers with a nonprofit organization provide art projects for children to work on, whether it is painting rocks to hide around the wing or take home to learning about another art form. Staff members also go out of their way to interact with the children in a light-hearted way.
“I love children, but one who became near and dear to my heart was very scared, so I would bring in toys to help him get through the day,” Clark said. “He later found out I have a fear of spiders. Now one of the things he loves to do every time he comes is to bring in a fake spider and put in my office or stick in my uniform pocket so he can have fun. My hope is that while they are here with us, we can help these kids find some sort of enjoyment.”