What the Youngest Cancer Patients Teach

Health workers find bravery, grit, and more in these tiny fighters

If we are lucky in this lifetime, we go to work each day believing in what we do, energized by those we work with, accepting of the challenge to always improve, and wanting nothing more than to come back the next day and do it all again — because our work feeds our soul.

That’s a tall order for most people. But the nurses who work in pediatric oncology, definitely one of the most difficult fields, say they’re blessed to know the children and the families they work with every day.

Brain cancer is now the focus: It’s the deadliest form of childhood cancer in the U.S.

As September — and Pediatric Oncology Awareness Month — comes to a close, there is news to celebrate. Treatment advances have allowed doctors to cure many blood-related cancers.

“Forms of leukemia that a generation ago were almost universally fatal are now almost universally curable,” Sally Curtin, an author of the report done by the National Center for Health Statistics, told Reuters earlier this month.

Overall, cancer death rates for children have dropped 20 percent since 1999, continuing a trend that started in the mid-1970s. Numbers like this offer an incredible amount of hope to families still facing a diagnosis, but there is much work to be done. Brain cancer is now the focus, as it is the deadliest form of childhood cancer in the United States.

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The nurses tasked with caring for these kids are up for the job.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Childhood Cancer in the U.S.” source=”http://www.”]Each year, an estimated 15,780 children between birth and 19 years of age are diagnosed with cancer. Roughly 1 in 285 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday.[/lz_bulleted_list]

“A lot of people ask me, ‘How can you work with cancer kids?’ And I say, ‘If you met just one of them, you would say, How can’t you work with cancer kids?'” said Gina Hull, a charge nurse in the hematology/oncology unit at Children’s Hospital of California. “I told one of my patients the other day how her story was going to inspire other people. Her grandmother started to cry. Sometimes it’s hard, emotionally. But at the end of the day, it’s worth it.”

Hull went into nursing 15 years ago because she liked science and math; she didn’t know where she might end up. She can’t imagine working with any other patient population.

“People think it’s so sad, and sometimes it is. But these kids are running around on tricycles, shooting water guns at each other. It’s not just that they’re sick all the time,” said Hull.

Related: Startling Rise in 9/11-Related Cancers

That same inspiration is why Tammy Navigato loves her job even after 25 years at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

“You have a special bond with the patients and families — we see these patients for years. They’re not your typical hospital admission, where they come in, you diagnose them, treat them, and send them home,” Navigato told LifeZette.

“We see strength in families. We see little ones who are so incredibly tough,” said one nurse.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned,” said her colleague, Meghan O’Hagan, a registered nurse in the Ambulatory Infusion Center at Lurie, “is when families are new and recently diagnosed — you see people at a time their world has been turned upside down. But we get to see them through the whole process. They get used to it; it gets to be more routine. No one wants to be a part of that, but you can see how resilient kids are and parents are. It’s a really good reminder that even though bad things happen, you adapt — you can get through it. I see it every day,”

It’s a job you must be willing to put your entire heart and soul into, said Kelli Tucker, an RN at Phoenix Children’s Hospital — definitely not for someone who wants to clock in and clock out and just grab a check at the end of the week.

“We are the ones who hear the pain in the cries. We see the fear in the eyes of patients and families. We hold little heads up as they are vomiting, and look at the sad little faces, as we want more than anything to make them feel better. We are there when there is horrible news of relapse. We cry — probably more often than most realize,” Tucker said.

[lz_ndn video=31422620]

But the reward, she and all the others added, is far more than what they can ever give.

“We get to see the bravest of the brave. We get to see courage at its most vulnerable time. We see strength in families. We see little ones who are so incredibly tough and can handle more in their little bodies than most adults. We see the beautiful teenagers with courage and bravery withstand losing their hair with grace and beauty — we get to witness them realizing that what is really important is what is on the inside. We see miracles. We believe in miracles,” Tucker said.

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