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In the 1960s, they drove to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in jalopies, clad in stretch slacks and freshly pressed cotton shirts. Today, teenagers come to St. Jude arrayed in faded jeans and clutching their cell phones and laptop computers.
But some things remain the same.
Teens today still battle acne, worry about their peers’ opinions and yearn to gain their independence. For those diagnosed with cancer or catastrophic diseases, such concerns can be exacerbated by hair loss, weight gain, isolation, questions about mortality and depression.
At St. Jude, teens have their own place to hang out and spend time with friends their own age while undergoing treatment. The Teen Rooms feature games, art supplies, movies, pinball machines and jukeboxes. Patients must be at least 13 years old to enter. No parents, no doctors or nurses are allowed.
“It's that age when everything is important to them—their looks, their friends, their social activities, their participation in sports. Many of our teens are uprooted from their entire lives and their whole support systems,” said Kelly Anderson, a St. Jude Child Life specialist. “The Teen Rooms—one on our main floor, one for bone marrow transplant patients and one in patient housing—provide areas for them to get away from the younger kids and parents. At some point, they all need that.”
Social Work teams with Child Life and other clinical staff to assess the patients and help them maintain a sense of normalcy and balance. Special St. Jude activities allow teenaged patients to experience typical rites of passage. Those include high school graduation, a gallery featuring teen art, and the Teen and Young Adult Formal.
The formal is organized by the hospital's Child Life department with enthusiastic input from patients and their siblings. From the pamper party to the stretch limos to the red carpet, the goal is normalization and entertainment.
The incidence of cancer in this age group has increased steadily in the last 25 years, and yet survival rates for teens have been disproportionally lower than those for younger children. However, at St. Jude, clinicians have recently begun to close that gap. For instance, a dozen years ago, older teens with acute lymphoblastic leukemia had only a 59 percent chance for a cure, compared with an 88 percent rate for children ages 1 through 14.
Because of individualized treatment and supportive care, those numbers have skyrocketed. Last year, St. Jude investigators announced a nearly 30 percent increase in the survival rate for ALL patients who were 15 to 18 years old when their cancer was found. The five-year overall survival rates were 88 percent for those teens and 94 percent for younger children.
The patients’ quality of life increased as well, thanks to the elimination or reduction of drugs that cause such long-term side effects as infertility and second cancers.
Adolescents and young adults being treated on pediatric trials are finding more success and survival than they did in years past. However, the rate of survival is still not as high as clinicians want it to be. Clearly, there is more work to do.
As it has done for the past 50 years, St. Jude will continue to meet that challenge—until survival rates for all teens are 100 percent.