Give a Kid a Chance

No one really knows why kids get cancer. But they do, some 14,000 of them a year.
    Go to Parole Rotary’s Naptown barBAYq May 13 and 14, and you’ll be helping “give a chance of living a nice long life” to the 200 kids cancer sends each year to The Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore.
    Like Tracie Lewis.
    The fifth-grader at Severna Park’s Folger Mckinsey Elementary School has been a patient at Hopkins since last June, when her Coast Guardsman father was posted to Curtis Bay Yard in Baltimore.
    A year or so earlier, a cell in her fast-growing young body took a wrong turn.
    A cell like that “can race ahead like a car with a brake pedal that no longer works,” explains Dr. Donald Small, director of Pediatric Oncology at Hopkins’ Kimmel Cancer Center.
    “If an occasional error in the DNA — which is what we call mutation — results in a growth advantage for that cell, it’s off to the races,” Small says.
    Tracie’s rogue cells ran into Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
    The mutation triggered a war fought not only by her immune system but also by scientists like Small, who spent 17 years in school training for the battle.
    Wiley and hostile as kids’ cancers are, they are not unpredictable. They fall into some 13 types, meaning they can be understood, however slowly and painstakingly, attacked and even routed.
    That’s Small’s job, shared with the 13 other cancer fighters who are the famous med school’s pediatric oncology faculty.
    The team are researchers, teachers and healers. “We love to do the science to forward the state of the art, we love taking care of patients and getting to know their families,” Small says of the faculty.
    As recently as the 1970s, few of the 14,000 kids with cancer would survive. Now about 70 percent will be cured, with the percentage rising almost by the year.
    Tracie is on that path.
    “Her disease is under control,” explains her mother, Natalie Lewis. “She’s on maintenance chemotherapy.”
    Getting to this stage meant going to John’s Hopkins as often as every other day for treatment.
    The drugs used in chemotherapy, arsenic among them, are all poisons.
    “Fortunately,” Small told Bay Weekly, “they kill more abnormal than normal cells. But they have effects on normal cells as well.”
    Nowadays, when Tracie is hospitalized, it’s because of her chemotherapy, not the cancer.
    “She’s more susceptible,” her mother says. “The kinds of thing we don’t get treated for can be potentially deadly for her. She has to worry about the kid who comes to school with a cold, make sure her hands are washed and not do a lot of hand holding and sharing — even though she’s at the age when girls are best friends and sharing everything.”
    Small and his team believe understanding how cells mutate will lead them to treatments without the severe side effects of chemotherapy.
    “Once we know the mutations — and we’re pushing to discover them,” he says, “then we can develop drugs that target those mutations.”
    Molecularly Targeted Therapy, as the new science is called, “is our best hope for fighting cancer,” Small says. “We think so because these mutations that make cells malignant can also be targeted as the Achilles heel of cancer. Our hope is to turn those cells on their heels to attack.”
    You’ll want to keep all this in mind at the Naptown barBAYq, because pleasant as it will be, it’s not just another festival, it’s a fundraiser.
    You’re there so that on an ordinary spring day, Tracie Lewis can say, “It feels really good to know that I’m not exactly sick. I feel I can do anything.”