Survivor Jessica Wright’s story underscores the importance of this topic
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.”
Jessica recently made time to share more of her story with us to help paint a picture of life as a survivor of a CNS tumour.
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!