SAN FRANCISCO – In the last four decades, the survival rate for children diagnosed with cancer has jumped from 10 percent to a whopping 90 percent.
While those numbers are remarkable, many patients still face eventual problems from the effects of chemotherapy.
As a result, a hospital in San Francisco has made sure pediatric patients will have a team in their corner, long after the cancer is gone.
Gertie is as energetic and carefree as any 5-year-old can be. Her mom, Jeni Jensen, couldn't be happier.
On Gertie's first birthday, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare form of cancer. The chances of being diagnosed with it are greater for kids with Down syndrome, like her.
"It's such a scary diagnosis. I mean you're faced with mortality with your child," Jenson said.
Gertie beat the cancer, but the risk isn't completely gone. Sixty percent of survivors face long-range side effects from chemotherapy, including infertility, heart issues and other cancers.
"So we need to make sure we're monitoring their care long-term," said Robert Goldsby, MD, UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco.
And that's exactly what the survivor's clinic at UCSF is doing.
A team of nurses, nutritionists, social workers and oncologists work together to track a child's health long into adulthood.
"I've seen patients older than me. We see them life-long, as long as they're willing to come," Goldsby said.
Social workers evaluate patients' mental well-being, nutritionists focus on eating habits and physical exams help predict long-term health.
"And then we have a referral group, that if they need a geneticist or they need a cardiologist," Goldsby said.
All of the patient's health information is summed in a wallet size "survivor's health passport" for any doctor to review.
"The passport is awesome. It has all the information that they need to look for possible side effects from her chemotherapy," Jensen said.
But the best part of it all, Gertie is showing no signs of complications.
"All the support is so important. She's a blessing," Jensen said.
Patients in the survivor's clinic still need to see a primary care physician for routine checkups.
It's also recommended that patients join the program two years after becoming cancer free, when the risk of a reoccurrence is reduced and doctors can begin looking for side effects.