Advancing Childhood Cancer Care in a Post-COVID World

A Synopsis of the 2021 POGO Multidisciplinary Symposium on Childhood Cancer

The COVID-19 pandemic has healthcare providers and the families in our care literally hiding emotions behind masks. Family members cannot fully see the empathy we feel, and as providers, we are unable to use our traditional methods of providing compassionate care. Over the past 18 months, families have had to live their cancer journey in parallel with a global pandemic requiring multiple restrictions to hospital visits, with additional screening and COVID-19 testing. This has elevated levels of distress and burnout for families and hospital care teams alike.  Recognizing this, the 2021 POGO Symposium planning committee sought to explore the issues of patient and caregiver distress and resilience, as well as healthcare provider burnout.  As part of maintaining professional resiliency beyond the acuteness of COVID-19, the POGO Symposium provided an opportunity to learn about important clinical and diagnostic updates, and continued healthcare and scientific innovation.

Family Stories Remind of our Purpose

A parent testimonial opened day one and grounded us as pediatric oncology professionals in the “why” of our work.  In sharing about her 14-year-old daughter’s cancer diagnoses, Guylaine Tremblay touched on the importance of psychosocial supports for all family members. On day two, the Saenz family gave real-life context to the challenge of accessing clinical trials that so many families face. These stories were powerful reminders of the impact a childhood cancer diagnosis has on the family and how the pediatric oncology community must better understand these needs and provide comprehensive and personalized support. 

Care for Caregivers of all Stripes

When it comes to caregiver resilience after their child is diagnosed with cancer, we heard that 80% of families will adapt and be resilient based on our standardly-delivered supports and strategies. Of critical importance is finding a way to identify the remaining 20% who will need intensive psychosocial and possibly psychiatric support, and to ensure there are suitable professionals available for referral and intervention.  Healthcare teams must also make room for self-compassion in our stressful and often chaotic work days, as we try to leverage available resources to assist families who require extra support.

Delivering Virtual Care to Survivors

The COVID-19 pandemic has also dramatically altered the way we deliver care, and especially aftercare to survivors, with the rapid implementation of virtual care. We learned what can be done well, what was of benefit to patients and families and what could be successfully carried forward in a post-pandemic world. New and innovative approaches to follow-up care include recognizing unique needs tied to the transition from acute care to survivorship clinics.

Virtual Counselling to Help Childhood Cancer Survivors

Clinical and Diagnostic Advances Bring New Hope

Of course new innovations in childhood cancer continue to emerge, and presentations on clinical and diagnostic advances added greatly to our learning. Work in the area of immune checkpoint inhibitors shows great success in treating Hodgkin lymphoma and promise for other diagnoses. It was exciting to hear about updates on CAR T for both B-cell leukemias and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), one of the more difficult childhood cancers to treat. This brings signs of hope for improved outcomes with less toxic therapy approaches. Potentially ground-breaking work in liquid biopsy allows us to imagine a world where we no longer need invasive, surgical intervention to detect cancer both at diagnosis and during cancer surveillance.

Innovation Panel Explores Strategies for Canada

The POGO Symposium wrapped up with a slate of presentations and a panel discussion with luminaries in the field that tackled everything from innovative solutions to improve clinical trial access to how Canada can develop an innovation strategy that serves patients and the economy. The message that innovation is not only invention but the successful development and implementation of these inventions was very strong.  This session also highlighted our collective challenge to make available new and often expensive therapies. The discussion presented the opportunity for all of us to consider how we can individually and in partnership move the needle on public policy for advances in pediatric cancer.  

With something of interest for everyone, the 2021 POGO Symposium showcased the bravery of families to help us all learn from their stories and the tremendous dedication of professionals who continue to do everything possible to provide excellent care to every child diagnosed with cancer. My hope is that we were all encouraged to heed the challenge of harnessing innovation to transform the landscape of pediatric oncology care.

“Even during the most chaotic day it is important to take a moment to breathe and remember why we chose this very important work, and to be present with our patients and families.”
– Sue Zupanec

Sue Zupanec, co-chair of the 2021 POGO Symposium Planning Committee

Written by Sue Zupanec, co-chair of the 2021 POGO Symposium Planning Committee, with contributions from her co-chair, Dr. David Hodgson, POGO Medical Director and Chair in Childhood Cancer Control.

Sue is a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Program at The Hospital for Sick Children, and Chair, Nursing Discipline of the Children’s Oncology Group.

The 2021 POGO Multidisciplinary Symposium on Childhood Cancer was presented virtually, the first time ever for POGO’s signature education event. It attracted 260+ participants across multiple disciplines from over 50 organizations. POGO is grateful to the planning committee and sponsors for helping to ensure the event’s success.


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