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In general, cancer in children and teenagers is uncommon, so it can be hard for doctors to plan treatments unless they know what has been most effective in other children. That’s why more than 60% of children with cancer are treated as part of a clinical trial. Clinical trials are research studies that compare standard treatments (the best proven treatments available) with newer treatments that may be more effective. Investigating new treatments involves careful monitoring using scientific methods, and all participants are followed closely to track their health and progress.
To take advantage of these newer treatments, all children and adolescents with EFT should be treated at a specialized cancer center. Doctors at these centers have extensive experience in treating this age group and have access to the latest research. A doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer is called a pediatric oncologist. In many cases, a team of doctors works with a child and the family to provide care; this is called a multidisciplinary team. Pediatric cancer centers often have extra support services for children/teens and their families, such as child life specialists, nutritionists, social workers, and counselors. Special activities and programs to help your child and family cope may also be available.
Children and teenagers with EFT should be treated in clinical trials specifically designed for their disease. A typical treatment plan for EFT consists of systemic therapy (therapy that treats the entire body, such as chemotherapy or stem cell transplantation) combined with localized therapy. Localized therapy is therapy to treat the tumor itself, such as surgery and radiation therapy. When more than one treatment is used, it is called combination therapy. Doctors make treatment decisions based on the stage of the disease and the age of the child, while trying to avoid or reduce long-term side effects of treatment.
The treatment of EFT depends on the size and location of the tumor, whether the tumor has spread, and the child’s overall health.
Descriptions of the most common treatment options for EFT are listed below. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Learn more about making treatment decisions.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is given by a pediatric or medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication. Some people may receive chemotherapy in their doctor’s office; others may go to the hospital or outpatient clinic. A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.
When possible, chemotherapy is given before surgery. Sometimes, the doctor may use surgery or radiation therapy (see below) first and then give chemotherapy to eliminate any remaining EFT cells. After chemotherapy, the doctor may use localized surgery or radiation therapy followed by additional chemotherapy to eliminate any remaining EFT cells.
Chemotherapy for EFT is usually injected into a vein or muscle; it is rarely given by mouth. Patients with EFT may receive vincristine (Oncovin, Vincasar PFS), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Neosar), doxorubicin (Adriamycin), ifosfamide (Ifex), and etoposide (Toposar, VePesid). For children with EFT that has not spread to other parts of the body, the standard schedule is to receive chemotherapy every two weeks. Patients with metastatic EFT may also be treated with the above medications and dactinomycin (Cosmegen).
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.
Learn more about chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat EFT are continually being evaluated. Talking with your child's doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for your child, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.
People receiving chemotherapy for EFT may be at risk for neutropenia, an abnormally low level of a type of white blood cell called neutrophils. All white blood cells help the body fight infection. Your child’s doctor may give your child medications to increase white blood cell levels. These medications are called white blood cell growth factors, also known as colony-stimulating factors (CSFs). Treating neutropenia is an important part of the treatment plan. Learn more about neutropenia.
Surgery is the removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue during an operation. When it is possible, surgical removal of the tumor should be performed after chemotherapy (called neoadjuvant chemotherapy). An orthopedic oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating bone cancer with surgery. Surgery may also be needed to remove any remaining cancer cells after chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Learn more about cancer surgery.
Often a tumor can be removed without causing disability. However, if the tumor occurs in the arm or leg, surgery to remove much of the bone may affect the limb's ability to function. Bone grafts from other parts of the body may help to reconstruct the limb. A prosthesis (artificial limb) made of metal or plastic bones or joints can replace lost tissue. Physical therapy after surgery can help the child learn to use the limb again. Support services are available to help the child cope with the loss of a limb. Learn more about rehabilitation.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other high-energy particles to kill tumor cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. For EFT, radiation therapy is used when surgery is not possible or did not remove all tumor cells, as well as when chemotherapy was not effective.
The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation therapy is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time. Intraoperative radiation therapy (radiation given inside the body during surgery) is being studied in clinical trials.
Side effects from radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, upset stomach, and loose bowel movements. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished. In the long term, radiation therapy can also interfere with normal bone growth and increase the risk of developing a secondary cancer. Learn more about radiation therapy.
Stem cell transplantation/bone marrow transplantation
For EFT, stem cell transplantation is an experimental approach that is still under evaluation to determine its effectiveness in the treatment of this disease. It should only be done as part of a clinical trial.
A stem cell transplant is a medical procedure in which diseased bone marrow is replaced by highly specialized cells, called hematopoietic stem cells. Hematopoietic stem cells are found both in the bloodstream and in the bone marrow. Today, this procedure is more commonly called a stem cell transplant, rather than bone marrow transplant, because it is the blood stem cells that are typically being transplanted, not the actual bone marrow tissue.
Before recommending transplantation, doctors will talk with the patient and family about the risks of this treatment and consider several other factors, such as the type of tumor, results of any previous treatment, and child’s age and general health.
There are two types of stem cell transplantation depending on the source of the replacement blood stem cell: allogeneic (ALLO) and autologous (AUTO). AUTO transplantations are used to treat EFT.
In an AUTO transplant, the patient’s own stem cells are used. The stem cells are obtained from the patient when he or she is in remission from previous treatment. The stem cells are frozen until they are needed, usually after the high-dose treatment (explained below) is completed.
The goal of transplantation is to destroy tumor cells in the marrow, blood, and other parts of the body and allow replacement blood stem cells to create healthy bone marrow. In most stem cell transplants, the patient is treated with high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to destroy as many tumor cells as possible. This also destroys the patient’s bone marrow tissue and suppresses the patient’s immune system. After the high-dose treatment is given, blood stem cells are infused into the patient’s vein to replace the bone marrow and restore normal blood counts from donor cells.
In stem cell transplantation, replacement cells engraft (begin to make new blood cells) and turn into healthy, blood-producing tissue in 10 days to three weeks. Destroying the patient’s own marrow reduces the body’s natural defenses, temporarily leaving the patient at an increased risk of infection. Until the immune system is back to normal, the patient may need antibiotics and blood transfusions.
In an AUTO transplant, there is little risk of tissue rejection because the replacement stem cells are the patient’s own cells. However, there is a risk in an autologous transplant that some of the cells that are put back into the patient could still be cancerous. Learn more about bone marrow and stem cell transplantation.
Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.
Palliative care can help a person at any stage of illness. People often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.
Before treatment begins, talk with your child’s health care team about the possible side effects of the recommended treatment plan and supportive care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your child’s doctor or another health care team member if your child experiences a problem, so it is addressed as quickly as possible. Learn more about palliative care.
A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called “no evidence of disease” or NED.
A remission can be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty leads to many children and their parents feeling worried or anxious that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it is important to talk with your child’s doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding the risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help everyone feel more prepared if the cancer does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.
If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence). Recurrence is most common within the first two years after treatment has been completed. However, late recurrences occurring up to five years after treatment are more common with EFT than with other childhood solid tumors.
If there is a recurrence, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your child’s doctor will talk about the treatment options. The next round of treatment depends on where and when the tumor recurred and how it was first treated. The doctor may use chemotherapy, including cyclophosphamide and topotecan (Hycamtin), irinotecan (Camptosar) and temozolomide (Temodar), radiation therapy, and/or may surgically remove new tumors. Stem cell transplantation may also be recommended. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer.
Children with recurrent cancer and their parents often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients and families are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. Learn more about dealing with cancer recurrence.
If treatment fails
Although treatment is successful for the majority of children with cancer, sometimes it is not. If a child’s cancer cannot be cured or controlled, this is called advanced or terminal cancer. This diagnosis is stressful, and it may be difficult to discuss. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your child’s doctor and health care team to express your family’s feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families.
Parents or guardians are encouraged to think about where the child would be most comfortable: at home, in a home-like setting elsewhere, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. Some children may be happier if they can arrange to attend school part-time or keep up other activities and social connections. The child’s health care team can help parents or guardians decide on an appropriate level of activity. Making sure a child is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important as part of end-of-life care. Learn more about caring for a terminally ill child and advanced cancer care planning.
The death of a child is an enormous tragedy, and families may need support to help them cope with the loss. Pediatric cancer centers often have professional staff and support groups to help with the process of grieving. Learn more on grieving the loss of a child.
Find out more about common terms used during cancer treatment.