When the 4th Annual Light the Night event takes place in Queens on October 5, participants won’t be just walking through Flushing Meadows Park; they’ll be taking steps towards greater awareness of leukemia and blood-related cancers. They’ll be carrying the illuminated balloons that engendered the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s fundraising event; white for cancer patients and survivors, red for empathizers. Some might associate these heavenly lights with the souls of the 160 people who die in the world each day from leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Others will see them as a ray of hope for those coping with the physically, emotionally and financially ravaging effects of the disease.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, the only thing parents know with certainty is the depth of their own emotion. Most have never heard of diseases like the A.L.L. Judy and Fred Finnerty’s son has. That’s when the many services provided by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society become invaluable.
“You can’t imagine what goes through your mind,” Judy Finnerty says, remembering when she first learned her son Freddy, (just turned 3), had that particular blood-related cancer, and that they had only 2-3 days to decide on the site and course of treatment. “You want to make the best choice for your child, but you just don’t know. You pray a lot. And you hope you can just get through it.”
Diagnosed in February 2001, young Freddy has been in remission since his first round of chemotherapy. Now 5, Freddy has just started school, and can thankfully play like any other kid. Judy and Fred Sr. look forward to having his Mediport (a special link for the chemotherapy IV line) removed this month.
Although the chemo and hospital visits have abated, young Freddy still takes large doses of antibiotics every week and Prednisone (steroids) for five consecutive days each month. Fred Sr. became a stay-at-home parent in order to see Freddy through his treatments and follow-ups, and hopes his son continues on the current remissions. If not, the Finnertys take stock in knowing a 3-year-old sibling is Freddy’s perfect bone marrow match.
Judy Finnerty will be supporting the October 5 events in her native Staten Island to thank the Society for the help they gave. The literature they provided was her first line of knowledge; interacting with parents of other patients ran a close second. Information was critical in helping their family understand, anticipate, and cope with the mood swings and odd food cravings that usually accompany children’s chemotherapy and steroid treatments.
Little Freddy’s diagnosis of A.L.L. (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia) is the most common type of leukemia in children. A.L.L. is one of the range of diseases this fall’s citywide/nationwide Light the Night walks aim to raise awareness of…and funds for.
Leukemia and myeloma are among the group of cancers that originate in the bone marrow, while non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease originate in the lymphatic system. This year alone, well over 100,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with these blood-related diseases — labeled ‘cancers’ because they involve the uncontrolled growth of cells with similar functions and origins (cells that are vital to the healthy production of blood in the body, and to helping fight off infections).
Back in the 1960s, when many of these cancers were first recognized, the survival rate for a child with A.L.L. was 4 percent. Today it is 81 percent, and the latest wave of treatments offer parents new hope that one day no one will have to lose their child.
The use of chemotherapy combinations helps manage disease, and according to the Society, is accountable for the dramatic improvement in survival rates. Bone marrow transplant — whether from a patient’s own cells or their donor match — is another significant treatment. The latest techniques for harvesting stem cells from blood, and especially cord blood, have made transplantation available for increasing numbers of patients.
In addition to popularized treatments, monies raised by the Society each year help finance new research initiatives — one of which led to the discovery of the new drug Gleevtec, shown to normalize blood counts in patients with C.M.L. (Chronic Myelogonous Leukemia). Immunotherapy, vaccines and gene therapy (aimed at disabling the encoding instructions of an Oncogene) are among the emerging treatments for patients with leukemia and blood-related cancers.
Parents who want more information about these diseases/treatments can visit the Society’s website at www.leukemia-lymphoma.org or call their Information Resource Center at 800-955-4572. Free publications are available on the different categories of disease, treatments, hematologists/oncologists and other specialized doctors, and clinical trials, as well as family support groups and financial help. You can also sign on to the Society’s website to find out more about joining a walk or sponsoring a walker.