Kids shouldn’t get cancer. They shouldn’t be in a hospital, suffer through the sickness, bear mediports, endure infusions, lose their hair and suffer the worst battle of their life at such an innocent age. But they do.

Kids get cancer and it happens right here in Southwest Florida. I’ve been a pediatric oncologist for more than 20 years and looking parents in the face and saying, ‘your child has cancer’ never gets easier. It’s heartbreaking.

This year alone, while the world is focused on a pandemic, we have had 42 children diagnosed with cancer at Golisano Children’s Hospital. We have an outpatient clinic that sees more than 400 visits a month and an inpatient unit with 12 beds. This summer those beds were full. We anticipate this year to be our busiest. Why you ask? Why now? It is too early to speculate. There are spikes from time to time.

What we do know is that we have more than 80 children on active cancer treatment at Golisano Children’s Hospital today. Each child, each family, needs not just the medical treatment we provide, but unconditional support. We understand that our patient is not a diagnosis, but a unique individual with different feelings and needs. So we’ve built an advanced team at Golisano Children’s Hospital to provide care from every angle; it is a multi-disciplinary approach. This team includes a psychologist, family educator, child life specialist, technology specialist, music therapist and full-time teacher at the hospital, as well as five oncologists and a team of specially trained nurses. This approach helps not only the child fighting cancer but the entire family unit.

None of this would be possible without help from generous donors. Philanthropy is essential to our program. 25 years ago, Frank Haskell made a promise to his dying daughter to help kids with cancer. When Barbara Haskell lost her own battle with cancer at age 36, Barbara’s Friends was established as the pediatric cancer fund at Golisano Children’s Hospital. Since then, we’ve helped more than 10,000 children with cancer and life-threatening blood disorders.

Today, we celebrate more than $20 million in generosity. Thanks to the support of Barbara’s Friends, no child is denied treatment because of a family’s inability to pay for care. Barbara’s Friends helps provide all possible resources from medication to transportation, gas cards for families to get to and from treatment, meals for the parents when a child is staying overnight so they don’t have to leave their bedside, a state of the art facility, equipment, medical supplies, therapy and staffing – all made possible by your support.

When Golisano Children’s Hospital was built, we made a commitment to offer the best care close to home. If a child needs radiation therapy, that may mean a daily visit for four to six weeks or more. Standard protocol for leukemia treatments often require weekly visits for up to three years or more. Today, our team offers similar services and treatment protocols as other top centers around the country so that our families don’t have to leave the state or be without their network of friends, family and colleagues who support them.

As we continue to grow as a children’s hospital, we are adding more specialists. As our population continues to grow, so has the need for a pediatric neurosurgery program. From emergency surgery to brain tumors, kids will be taken care of right here in SWFL and families will not need to travel hundreds of miles for care.

We are also expanding mental health care, not only for our HEMOC patients but for all children. The brain should be treated like a muscle. It needs care and exercise. For any child with a critical illness or life-threatening condition, we have to take into account how they are reacting, how their peers are reacting and how we can support the family so they can properly care for their sick child. We will be talking more about this in a special Kids’ Minds Matter Mental Health Monday segment live on Facebook on September 21. We are fortunate the Yawkey Foundation and Boston Red Sox continue to provide for a psychologist for any of our pediatric cancer patients, siblings or family members to talk to.

Pediatric cancer outcomes are more hopeful in 2020. Sixty years ago a child diagnosed with cancer had a 10% chance of survival. Today at Golisano Children’s Hospital, our children have an 84% survival rate – That’s higher than the national average. Golisano is a member of the Children’s Oncology Group. This prestigious membership allows us to share research and clinical trials, and access new information as it becomes available from other top centers of excellence.

Research is advancing our protocols, and with all the advances in treatment, more children are surviving pediatric cancers. We have developed many initiatives to care for the patient during treatment and beyond. We are also learning that young adults and adolescents need our help. Research is showing that a young adult with a pediatric cancer diagnosis has a 30% higher survival rate when treated under a pediatric protocol. To better serve our community, we now have an oncologist on staff, specially trained to care for young adults. Fertility preservation is very important for our older patients. Saving a patient’s life is the goal, but we also want to give them the best chance to have a family of their own. Fertility preservation can be costly and is not always covered by insurance. We work with our patients to help make this possible and hope that we will be able to have access to more funding for this program and continued research through philanthropy.

Education is vital for success in life; therefore, we’ve established The Barbara’s Friends Scholarship to help students who’ve battled cancer or a blood disorder attend a college of their choice. The first scholarship will be awarded in the Spring of 2021. We’re excited we can help provide this opportunity and hope to expand the program to benefit more than one child a year.

A cancer diagnosis turns the world upside down. It destroys the innocence of childhood, but there is hope. You don’t just cure a child of cancer – you give them their life back. All these “little” things add up to a world of opportunity for our patients. Barbara’s Friends helps make cancer more bearable by providing the care that goes with the latest medical treatments. Our team is very hands on and personal, and puts each child and their family at the center of everything we do.

Every September we recognize Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, celebrating all the survivors and children fighting their current battles. These children are some of the most remarkable people you will ever meet and their spirit is resilient. Thanks to you they have so many things to smile about. Thank you for your support in making the 25th Anniversary of Barbara’s Friends a success. Thank you for being a friend to children with cancer and blood disorders.

Dr. Emad Salman
Regional Medical Director
Golisano Children’s Hospital