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Hagerstown woman fighting cancer in children

June 24, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN -- Maria Hopkins noticed little differences about her son, setting him apart from other toddlers.

His verbal and social skills weren't developing at a normal rate. He had constant ear infections, and he couldn't seem to recover from even a common cold.

Thinking her son, Asher, had trouble hearing, it came as a shock when she was told her 2-year-old suffered from kidney cancer. In 2005, he was diagnosed with Wilms' Tumor - a rare type of kidney cancer that affects children and causes a fast-growing tumor to form on one or both kidneys.

Now, about three years since Asher's diagnosis, the 5-year-old is cancer-free, and Hopkins said she wants to help other family's survive the same "hell" her family has faced.

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She had planned to be part of a lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., Monday, joining with about 400 families, physicians, caregivers and others supporting the Caroline Pryce Walker Conquer Childhood Cancer Act of 2008.

The bill provides increased support for research programs on pediatric cancer, among other items.

Hopkins said she was unable to attend Monday due to a family emergency, but said she plans to continue to support pediatric cancer research and funding in other ways.

It's cancer

Hearing the words "cancer" and "tumor" coming from doctors talking about her son was a shock that has never quite gone away, Hopkins said.

The words got worse, though, and soon she was hearing that Asher had "very fast growing tumors that can double in size in two weeks time," she said. After being diagnosed, doctors found two masses in Asher's abdomen. One was the size of a football, and the other, the size of a baseball. Both were attached to one of the young boy's kidneys.

"I think there's shock for sure," Hopkins said. "I guess in some respects for us, he had been sick for so long and we couldn't figure out what was wrong. It was nice to have an explanation."

Asher soon had his left kidney removed, and the top third of his right kidney was removed as well during two separate surgeries.

That was followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiation.

On June 11, Asher received a clean bill of health, Hopkins said. The only recurring issue is high blood pressure, for which Asher is treated.

"Each day is a gift," Hopkins said. "And we just take it and go with it."

Only six percent of children will be diagnosed with kidney cancer, Hopkins said. Of those, only about 5 percent will have a type advanced enough to be called "stage five" - the type Asher had, Hopkins said.

She said in Asher's case, there is a 70 percent cure rate within five years. If he has not relapsed in that time, Asher will be counted among that percentage, Hopkins said.

"We're just praying he is one of them," she said.

If her son's cancer had been caught earlier, there would have been a 90 percent cure rate.

The bill

After her son's diagnosis, Hopkins said one of the first places she turned was the American Cancer Society. However, she found that the organization's primary focus was on cancer in adults.

Her oncologist referred her to CureSearch (curesearch.org) - which states that its mission is to cure childhood cancer. That organization is backing the Conquer Childhood Cancer Act of 2008.

The bill, which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives, authorizes $30 million annually over five years, providing funding for pediatric cancer clinical trials research, creating a national childhood cancer database and improving public awareness and communication regarding available treatments and research for children with cancer and their families.

"I can tell you that pediatric cancers are underfunded and under-researched," Hopkins said.

The lobbying effort Monday was to speak with representatives in Congress, Hopkins said. The bill must pass the U.S. Senate before supporters say steps will be taken to cure pediatric cancer.

Companion legislation in the U.S. Senate cleared the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee unanimously in November 2007.

The Senate is expected to vote on its version of the Conquer Childhood Cancer Act this summer, according to CureSearch's Web site.

Future goals

While she was unable to attend Monday's lobbying effort, Hopkins said she already has contacted her representatives in Washington.

She's shared her family's story, her son's strength and the need for more of a national focus on pediatric cancer.

Hopkins said she intends to continue advocating for childhood cancer patients and their families. September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and Hopkins said she'd like to raise funds to benefit childhood cancer research.

"I think one child with cancer is one too many, and anything we can do to help children and their families from having to survive this hell is money (well) spent," Hopkins said.

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