September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and a time to raise awareness and express support for the children and youth with cancer, survivors of childhood cancer, and their families.
The burden of a childhood cancer diagnosis on families is immense, affecting them emotionally, socially, financially and countless other ways. In Ontario, from the time of diagnosis, childhood cancer patients have access to a coordinated system of care in leading hospitals across the province.
Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario, POGO, is a made-in-Ontario solution, working in partnership with these hospitals and the Ontario government to help ensure everyone affected by childhood cancer has timely access to the best care and support.
This September, we acknowledge the children and youth in treatment or follow up care, the survivors of a childhood cancer diagnosis, the loved ones lost, and their families; and we are grateful to the many incredible organizations and multidisciplinary healthcare teams caring for them, and to those who provide other invaluable supports.
Watch the video statement from Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Sylvia Jones and POGO Board Chair James Scongack.
Statement from Premier Doug Ford
“We’re always thinking about those affected by childhood cancer and September is a time to raise awareness and show extra support to those with cancer, the survivors and their families,” said Premier Doug Ford. “We would like to thank the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario for providing world class care and support to children and families that are dealing with these immense challenges. We look forward to our continued collaboration, creating valuable solutions and taking care of the youth of Ontario.”
Statement from Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Sylvia Jones
“This month we recognize the brave and resilient children receiving treatment for cancer across Ontario as well as their families,” said Sylvia Jones, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. “Thank you to the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario for your tireless advocacy on behalf of everyone affected by childhood cancer and the healthcare workers and organizations caring for our province’s youth during this difficult time. Our government will continue to work with Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario alongside our hospital partners to ensure everyone experiencing childhood cancer has access to the care and support they need, where and when they need it.”
Statement from POGO Board Chair James Scongack
“Childhood cancer impacts people and communities across Ontario and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is a time for us to honour those impacted,” said James Scongack, Chair of the POGO Board of Directors. “It’s a time to build support and ensure we have the necessary resources to fight childhood cancer. In Ontario, we have amazing frontline healthcare professionals who do everything they can to bring hope to families as they go through one of the toughest experiences of their lives. September is a time for all Ontarians to let them know we have their backs from diagnosis and for their entire lives.”
Jessica Wright was 10 years old when her migraines and struggles at school began. She remembers going to the doctor several times but it was a teacher—a childhood cancer survivor herself—who convinced her parents to insist on an MRI. Her family was shocked when Jessica was diagnosed with a pilocytic astrocytoma tumour, which Jessica describes as a slow-growing brain tumour.
Jessica’s tumour was of the central nervous system (CNS), and CNS tumours are second only to leukemias in terms of incidence rates in children. Survivors of CNS tumours often contend with significant late effects that can impact them for the rest of their lives.
From November 4 – 5, a renowned roster of speakers at the 2022 POGO Multidisciplinary Symposium on Childhood Cancer will examine clinical and scientific advances in the diagnosis and treatment of CNS tumours in children and adolescents and highlight the impact of this disease on patients, families and survivors.
“In the last decade, the pediatric oncology world has observed a dramatic improvement in our understanding of the developments and mutations that cause childhood brain tumours and how to better treat them,” says Dr. Uri Tabori, POGO Symposium co-chair and head of the pediatric brain tumour program at SickKids. “Together with new technologies, this resulted in a revolution in our approaches where we have moved away from conventional chemoradiation to novel targeted therapies, radiation and surgical techniques. These changes have had a major effect on the long-term outcome of children affected with brain tumours, and how we manage their care and tumours when they mature into adulthood. This Symposium is unique as it will provide important updates on these new opportunities as well as discuss them in the context of history and present health providers with insights into our approach to these cancers in the genomic era.”
Dr. David Hodgson, POGO Medical Director and Chair in Childhood Cancer Control, co-chairs the 2022 POGO Symposium with Dr. Tabori. “Even beyond understanding the advances in treatment and tumour biology, providing the best care for these patients involves taking on challenging value judgements, and managing the social, physical and psychological effects that a brain tumour has on the patient and their family,” adds Dr. Hodgson. “The POGO Symposium has always brought together multidisciplinary experts to provide the most current updates across a spectrum of issues. And I’m particularly pleased that we have been able to grow our collaboration with survivors to bring their voices directly into the program.”
Q: Describe what things were like for you with your original diagnosis.
Jessica: My tumour was smack in the middle of my brain so chemotherapy would not have been effective, and surgery was not an option. I was treated with radiation for six weeks but I still live with the calcified benign pilocytic astrocytoma tumour on my hypothalamus, my brain. I also live with several side effects. I struggle with balance; I move a bit slower than the average person, and my strength is very poor. I have a strong sensitivity to smells and I still suffer from migraines. I am also blind in one eye.
Q: Your parents must have had many difficult decisions to make at that time. Do you remember what that was like?
Jessica: Even though I was only 10, my parents involved me in the decision-making. The doctors gave us all the information and presented every option. They were very patient and gave us the opportunity to choose the direction we wanted to go in. The doctors looked me in the eye as much as they looked at my parents. I think that the honesty I received as a child feeds into how well I am able to advocate for myself today.
Q: What rehabilitation techniques did you undertake to address the challenges you were facing?
Jessica: After my radiation, I struggled with short-term memory. My parents and I would play memory games, word searches, Tetris, and slowly, over time, I was able to deal better with the brain fog. Now those strategies I used as a child have come back into play. My doctors back then also suggested I get special accommodations and aids for school, like having a scribe, but it was so expensive back then. Now it is different; these things are more accessible.
Q: What about any ways in which your cancer affected your personal life?
Jessica: The tumour affected how I interacted with people throughout my school years. I was sent to a vocational high school, which meant I was separated from my elementary school friends. I was teased and bullied a lot due to my disabilities.
My memory issues made learning more difficult and, to this day, my need for accommodations makes getting a job difficult. I have to guess at when disclosing my disability will be a good thing or when it will harm my chances of getting a job.
Same with dating. My psychologist told me the most important thing is to be myself and do what is best for me. I try to find creative ways to disclose my illnesses and my disabilities, and usually it involves humour.
Q: That’s a lot to deal with. Did your healthcare team provide you with any strategies to manage these psychosocial impacts?
Jessica: I am lucky that I have had the same oncology psychologist since I was a child. She has been through everything with me and has given me many coping strategies over the years. I have multiple medical issues right now and I struggle with solving them all at the same time. She counsels me that worrying about things that are out of my control will cloud my judgement. She reminds me to focus on one or two things right in front of me that I can control and to make peace with the things I can’t. Once I have done that, it clears my path and I have more capacity to deal with the harder things on my plate.
Q: You have been through so much. Has your astrocytoma had any other lasting impacts?
Jessica: In 2019, I was diagnosed with clear cell odontogenic carcinoma (CCOC), a rare intraosseous carcinoma of the jaw. I was told there is a direct link between the radiation I received as a child and the current diagnosis. I underwent a 10-hour surgery to have this cancer removed. As a result, my jawbone was removed and replaced with the fibula from my left leg and a titanium plate. My teeth on the lower right mandible were removed, as were my gums, and replaced with the skin graft on my leg (a free flap); a nerve and an artery were removed and replaced with a nerve in an artery from my leg. I had to re-learn how to speak, eat and use my jaw. I live with chronic pain each and every day.
During surgery, a papillary thyroid cancer was discovered and I then had a complete thyroidectomy, para neck dissection and then a complete neck dissection. I did physiotherapy for five months just to re-learn how to walk, and to learn to turn my head to be able to look up and down. After radioactive iodine treatment for my thyroid, I was declared cancer-free and was in remission for a year. Then a PET scan detected nodules on my lungs and a biopsy revealed CCOC in my lungs. Apparently, I am the only patient to be diagnosed with CCOC in my lungs. I just underwent experimental radiation to treat this cancer and I am currently waiting to see if the treatment worked.
Q: What are the major differences between this second diagnosis and your first?
Jessica: Getting a secondary cancer as an adult is harder. I have had to fight and advocate for my healthcare needs. Sometimes this assertiveness comes off as offensive and ruffles feathers. But I know I need to fight to stay alive and I need my healthcare team to listen. I cannot be going to clinic with a lack of trust; it is detrimental to my care. If you want your tomorrow, you have to fight today.
In 2018, Jessica Wright was a presenter in POGO’s Survivor to Survivor Network. Itwas an opportunity that enabled her to share her experiences with other survivors to help them cope with their own struggles. Jessica still describes the experience as “uplifting and empowering.”
The 2022 POGO Symposium takes place November 4 – 5 in Toronto. Register and learn more!
For over 100 years, Lions Clubs around the world have served to improve health and wellbeing, strengthen communities and support those in need. Recently, Lions International added childhood cancer to their roster of global causes, promising to increase acts of support to families and children affected by cancer. This year, the Elmvale District Lions Club chose POGO as one of their beneficiaries of their annual truck draw, pledging $20K for POGO in 2022. In July, POGO sat down with Elmvale member, and Club president, Jenn Rebidoux to talk about their event.
POGO: Tell us about your personal experience with childhood cancer.
Jenn: I think we all have a personal story to share. Mine is our eldest son, although not a young child, was in his 20s when he was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Our community rallied around our family to help us get through the diagnosis and the grueling treatments he went through. The chemotherapy and subsequent surgeries have been life altering for him.
I think everyone knows someone who has had a difficult cancer journey. It is not hard to understand how much more challenging and stressful that would be when you are a young family and how that would amplify the situation. A young child might not even understand what is happening to them, and one parent may have to give up work to become the fulltime caregiver to their child in treatment—this on top of the rest, would be unimaginable to bear.
POGO: How did you first hear about POGO and the work we do?
Jenn: During his District Governor year, Lion Jamie Jones introduced us to POGO. He is extremely passionate about this cause and connected us with POGO’s Chief Development Officer, Lynn Wilson, and POGO Interlink Nurse Tina Hamalainen who set up a Zoom meeting for our members to learn more about the impact our possible support would have on families affected by childhood cancer. We watched an incredibly compelling video that really demonstrates what families go through when their child is diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. We also learned about how POGO Satellite Clinics across Ontario help families stay closer to home when their child is in treatment—two of these clinics are relatively close to our Club. I believe it took about five minutes for us to decide unanimously that we would support POGO with our annual fundraiser.
POGO: $20K will have a big impact on families with a child in cancer treatment. How did you raise such a large donation?
Jenn: Our Club’s Annual Truck Draw. This campaign is a major fundraiser in our community. Annually we raffle off a Ford F-150. We are so grateful to the ongoing community support, and I believe our participants would be proud funds raised though this campaign support such a worthy cause.
POGO would like to gratefully acknowledge the Elmvale District Lions Club and all the ticket purchasers of this year’s truck draw for their support.
Kathryn, like many 18-year-olds, dreamed of attending university. Unlike many her age, Kathryn was undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma when her dream came true.
It was at this point that Sarah Brandon met Kathryn. Sarah is a Counsellor in the POGO School and Work Transitions Program.
“Kathryn was totally spunky and she absolutely blew me away with her motivation to be a university student,” says Sarah. “That was her number one goal. Her number two goal was to fit in and not be seen as different despite being on treatment for neuroblastoma for 14 years of her life.”
POGO Transitions typically supports adolescent and young adult (AYA) survivors of childhood cancer and brain tumours who are faced with significant late effects. These late effects can interfere with their ability to achieve their educational and career goals beyond high school. POGO Counsellors facilitate a smoother transition for these survivors.
A recent study (seeking publication), The Transition to Meaningful Activity for Childhood Cancer Survivors: Understanding the Role of the POGO School and Work Transitions Program (Stasiulis, E., Boydell, K. 2020), reported positive mental and emotional health impacts of the POGO Transitions Program on survivors. POGO hypothesized that extending this support to additional survivor groups, such as youth on-treatment patients, would result in similar outcomes.
In 2021, POGO received $1M in funding from the Slaight Family Foundation for the Program’s expansion. Part of this grant is now funding a pilot project to explore extending eligibility to the Program to include young people, like Kathryn, still receiving treatment while making decisions about their future after Grade 12.
POGO Interlink Nurses work at hospitals with specialized childhood cancer programs and help families navigate the journey of a cancer diagnosis. They identified that there is a small but increasing number of youth still on treatment at a time when they are interested and able to plan for their school and work futures.
Because these patients are facing the additional challenges related to active cancer treatment (including medical disabilities), a collaborative model has been developed in which POGO Interlink Nurses, who have expert knowledge about the clinical care path, will refer clients and collaborate with POGO Counsellors who will apply their expertise in educational and vocational counselling and support.
“Many young people in cancer treatment have a complex diagnosis and treatment protocol,” says Denise Mills, POGO’s Provincial Clinical Lead of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, and Kathryn’s long-time nurse practitioner. “At a time when their health status is uncertain, we are investing in their future and helping them to reach their goals.”
“The accessibility centre at Kathryn’s university was not accessible,” Sarah explains. “She was overwhelmed by the many challenges she faced trying to register as a student requiring accommodations because of her medical disability. Rather than getting the assistance that she required, Kathryn was sent away with a huge task list. This wore on her mental health, affecting her positive, motivated attitude as a student. This is when I had the privilege of using my role to support Kathryn.”
“It was very valuable for me to have constant communication with POGO Interlink Nurse Arvinder Aulakh and Denise, who knew Kathryn and her family very, very well,” adds Sarah. “They were able to give me background information that was helpful to me as Kathryn’s advocate navigating through the Accessibility Centre’s bureaucracy. I was able to speak with the manager and explain how the Accessibility Centre needed to up its game in order for Kathryn to get the support and accommodations that were rightfully hers. From there, we found professional and sympathetic ears that enabled Kathryn to achieve her incredible lifelong goal of attending university.
Tragically, Kathryn passed away shortly before completing her first year but, along the way, she educated her educators on how to support a student like her with medical disabilities. Working with Kathryn was one of the great privileges of my career and such a rewarding experience. Her motivation, wisdom and beautiful family support were not only courageous, but absolutely inspirational to me.”
The POGO Transitions/POGO Interlink pilot project aims to contribute to the continued care and support of youth who are receiving cancer treatment at hospitals with specialized childhood cancer programs and experiencing challenges in navigating the post-secondary and work worlds as a result. The objective is to address this gap in service through a collaborative model of care. Youth included in this pilot project will qualify for a one-time consultation OR ongoing Transitions counselling based on need. After their participation in the pilot project, patients and/or guardians will be surveyed/interviewed about their participation. POGO Interlink Nurses and POGO School and Work Transitions Counsellors will participate in an evaluation to measure the pilot’s impact and success.
From the Perspective of a Childhood Cancer Survivor – Leigha Bartholomew
Being a childhood cancer survivor, I know what it is like to fall behind in school. Months of my schooling were spent in a hospital and attending weekly medical appointments. I began to feel overwhelmed thinking I’d never be able to catch up or that I wasn’t doing as well as my peers. It was never expected that I would be at the same level as everyone else while I was going through treatment, at the time I believed I just wasn’t good enough. I’m sure a lot of cancer survivors have felt the same way at one point or another.
I had a similar feeling when post-secondary schools introduced a virtual learning environment in the midst of the pandemic. I started noticing a shift in my capabilities. A new learning atmosphere meant new challenges that I couldn’t adapt to as quickly as I had in the past. Attending classes became more difficult, focusing on work and remembering to finish assignments on time developed into more of an issue than it had been just a few months before, and my motivation to be involved in class discussions decreased. On top of that, I couldn’t bring myself to speak with my professors over Zoom about the challenges that I was facing. It seemed like I was in a rut and I didn’t know how to pull myself out.
My ADHD diagnosis came just a few months after we started learning virtually. While I was familiar with ADHD, I was surprised to learn that I had the disorder myself. Adding this on top of the other issues I had with mental health (I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in high school) was not something I had even considered, especially so far into my education. If someone were to look at my grades, I bet they wouldn’t have considered it either. Luckily, I didn’t have to go through these challenges all on my own.
Because mental health and learning disabilities pose a challenge for a number of young people, there are resources that have been put into place by schools to help students get through their education. In post-secondary school, there are learning strategists or assistive/adaptive technologists for students seeking academic support. Your academic advisor is also available to help you find programs or services tailored for your specific challenges.
Being a childhood cancer survivor can further complicate things. While some survivors may already be predisposed to having mental health and learning challenges, others can develop them due to the treatments they received or other related factors and experiences. These issues can also continue into adolescence and adulthood. Since most people working in pediatric oncology are aware of these challenges, there are specific resources available to survivors and their families. POGO AfterCare Clinic professionals, such as counsellors, art therapists, clinical psychologists and social workers are some of the resources available to help cancer survivors develop strategies related to the difficulties they might be facing with school or everyday life, and POGO School and Work Transitions Counsellors can help you to access these various resources!
My advice to fellow survivors would be to understand that you are not alone if you find yourself struggling. I am sure a lot of people can relate to me when I say that I prefer in-person schooling over the virtual classroom, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less scary having to make the transition. If my own experiences have taught me anything, it’s that everyone has a different style of learning. If you need help, reach out. No matter how difficult things might seem, there are always people and programs available to students and survivors if they need help.