The Cancer Researcher
Eric Sandler, M.D., chief of hematology/oncology
Nemours Children's Clinic
It's shocking news for everyone: When my wife called to tell me that our daughter, Alyssa, then 3-years-old, had been diagnosed with leukemia, I was so stunned that I forgot how to get to the pediatrician's office. In retrospect, I realized she hadn't been well for a few weeks, and I had completely missed all the symptoms of leukemia -- even though I'd just finished my fellowship in pediatric oncology, and leukemia was my specialty.
What to say if your child asks, "Will I die?": Whenever Alyssa asked me this, I'd tell her, "Everyone is going to die sometime, but we're going to get you cured. I don't think you're going to die from this."
Dr. Dad's tricks: When Alyssa was first diagnosed, I was a relative newbie, both as a dad and as an oncologist. But I learned little tricks, like trying never to prescribe a medication that needs to be taken four times a day, because that's so hard for a kid. I know everything you can mix bad-tasting medicine with. I recommend chocolate milk for liquid medicines. Crushing pills into chocolate pudding or chocolate ice cream also worked for us.
What I tell parents who ask, "What would you do if it were your child?": I encourage them to enroll their child in a clinical trial. That's what we did with Alyssa's first cancer. With her relapse, we didn't, but that was only because there wasn't one open at that time. Clinical trials are so important because childhood cancer is very rare -- only 10,000 to 12,000 or so kids will be diagnosed with any type of cancer this year. It's much harder to research new drugs for kids than to study drugs for women with breast cancer, for example, because there are hundreds of thousands of breast-cancer patients available for testing.
How illness affects a family: All four of my kids know more about cancer than most other children do, and I like to think they're more compassionate. Alyssa is especially empathetic, and she's a really positive thinker. We know the cancer shaped her life, but we've tried not to let it define it.
It's hard not to be scared: I don't tell patients about Alyssa, but by the second visit, they all seem to know. I guess someone on the staff must tell them. My family likes to think that it's all behind us now. But cancer is always in the back of your mind, and there are no guarantees. So I really understand how frightened parents are when they talk to me. And I understand how they worry.