Seeing a child with cancer tugs on everyone’s hearts. And, treating children with cancer does too, according to Fouad Hajjar, MD, medical director of the pediatric hematology oncology program at Florida Hospital for Children.
Dr. Hajjar shares:
“I think it takes a special kind of person, and I humbly say that. I don’t think just anybody can do pediatric oncology. I'm glad that not everybody does pediatric oncology because you must have that compassion, that sense of peace and the trust and belief in God that something's going to happen — something's going to improve. While we try tirelessly, we can’t cure every child, but we've come a long way and we will keep driving forward so that one day there will not be any need to even have a pediatric oncologist.”
It is this drive to cure cancer — to save every child — that inspires hope.
Research on Childhood Cancer Has Come a Long Way
“The amount of research that we participate in, but also research on a national, international level in pediatric oncology — and even some pediatric hematology — has really changed,” explains Dr. Hajjar.
Dr. Hajjar accounts:
“If you look back 50, 60 or 70 years ago, leukemia was untreatable — the success of treating a child with leukemia was less than five percent. Today, more than 80 percent of children with leukemia are cured from their disease. That's all because of the research that has taken place, both in the laboratories and in the clinic.”
But There is Still a Long Way to Go
Dr. Hajjar explains, “Florida Hospital is fortunate to be a participant in research as members of the Children’s Oncology Group, a cooperative group under the auspice of the National Cancer Institute that performs trials in childhood cancer.”
“We play a little part, but we play our part and we're very happy that we can do that and improve the health, wellbeing and outcomes of these children,” he notes.
Funding for Childhood Cancer Research
Dr. Hajjar explains that while there is a lot of tremendous philanthropy to support childhood cancer, most of the funding for research outside of the pharmacological institutions comes from the federal government.
“Since pediatric cancer represents less than one percent of total cancer, traditionally and historically, the federal government has funded children cancer with very little money to really pursue the impactful research,” Dr. Hajjar clarifies.
“For many years now, the pediatric oncology community has been pushing for more funding and I think it's working. Our position is: if you look at the amount of life years saved when you save a child, you're hopefully gaining another 80 years. You’re making a huge difference when you save a child with cancer. That’s one of the reasons why we stress the importance of pediatric oncology research and why more research money is needed. I think this is where the federal government is now moving and shifting more funds towards more pediatric cancer research. And this is of course great news for our patients.”
Innovations in Treating Children with Cancer
As Dr. Hajjar describes, cures start with innovation.
“What really sets us apart is the motto of this institution — the skill to heal and the spirit to care — and what that means is the drive to excellence; that drive to innovate. And it trickles down from the top. I can practice medicine in a place that supports me and is so committed to excellence and innovation. And this is what I love about this institution and that's what makes it possible for us.”
He goes on to affirm that whether it’s new technology to help his patients improve their outcomes, or a new service that can offer more support for patients and families — Florida Hospital for Children is behind his team of incredible nurses, doctors, specialists, surgeons and network of support.
“That makes it a unique place to work. It is the commitment to excellence and a commitment to innovation,” states Dr. Hajjar.
The Drive to do More
Within a specialty like pediatric oncology, there is always the spirit and drive to do more. To cure more. According to Dr. Hajjar:
“Some decide to just stay in general pediatrics and I felt I wanted to do more. I can still remember the day that I made the decision to go into pediatric oncology. It was in the early ‘80s and there was a teenager that I’d been following as a pediatric resident during my rotation at Roswell Park Cancer Institute Buffalo, New York. Thirty years ago, treatments were different and unfortunately, that teenager subsequently passed away from acute myelogenous leukemia. I somehow felt attached to that girl. I was able to do something more than just prescribe or administer the treatment this teenager needed. I was able to listen, I was able to touch, I was able to speak and I was able to be there to share some of what I would call “moments,” not memories. And I knew maybe there's something else I can offer that group of patients and that drew me into pediatric oncology.”
Proof That Doing More Saves Lives
The tireless research, the long hours, the emotional ties to children and families — it all leads to some of the greatest days, when Dr. Hajjar comes face-to-face with the happiest reminders of his life’s work.
Dr. Hajjar accounts:
“Every day, there is always a moment that can make your day great. That's what keeps you going and keeps you coming back for another day. I'm sure every other pediatric specialist has these moments, but I'll tell you about a little moment that happened not that long ago.”
“My wife and I went out to dinner with another couple that was moving away. We went to a favorite local restaurant. It was a Saturday night and the place was packed. As we sat at our table, the waiter came up to us. He was in his 30s and had this big beard. I really had no idea who he was and he looked at me he shouted, “Everybody! I want you all to stop doing what you're doing. This man here is the man that treated me 17 years ago for my leukemia and he cured me and this is where I am today!””
“And I'm looking at him and I say, “I just don't know who you are.” And he said, “I know you don't know, but let me cover my beard.” His first name is Michael. I can say his first name. I say, “Oh my gosh! Mike!” He gave me this biggest hug and everybody was applauding.”
“I don’t do what I do to be recognized, but when something like this happens, it just makes your whole life; it just makes your whole career.”
And as we recognize Childhood Cancer Awareness month, it is the moments, the breakthroughs, and the compassion that drives our hope to one day do more with cures for all.