Austin Fitzgerald was 7 when he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“It was definitely scary because I really knew something was very wrong with him,” said his mother, southwest resident Sandra Walberg, 31.
Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, founder and medical director of the Children’s Specialty Center of Nevada, 3121 S. Maryland Parkway, Suite 300, and the nonprofit Cure 4 The Kids Foundation, listened to Walberg’s motherly instinct and ordered a blood test.
“He (Dr. Bernstein) came in, and he said, ‘It looks like it’s leukemia,’ and I remember just standing by the table, and the floor got really close all of a sudden,” Walberg said.
Founded in 2007 by Bernstein, the Children’s Specialty Center provides treatment to children with blood disorders and cancer regardless of their ability to pay for services. A recent grant from the nonprofit St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which funds childhood cancer research, awarded $245,000 to the center to expand its Long-Term Follow-Up Clinic for childhood cancer survivors. The clinic is the only one of its kind in Nevada.
“All of us involved in St. Baldrick’s in Las Vegas are delighted with the $245,000 grant made to the Children’s Specialty Center,” said McMullan’s Irish Pub owner and St. Baldrick’s volunteer Brian McMullan. “This brings the total grants awarded these past few years to almost $1.5 million.”
The foundation’s main fundraiser, St. Baldrick’s Day, is scheduled for March 7. Volunteers pledge to shave their heads to raise funds for childhood cancer research.
Under the leadership of Dr. Alexandra Walsh, a board-certified pediatric hematology and oncology physician, the Long-Term Follow-Up Clinic accepts patients up to age 40 who are survivors of childhood cancers.
With the recent treatment advances in childhood cancers, the five-year survival rate has increased from less than 50 percent in the 1970s to almost 80 percent. While childhood cancers make up less than 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed each year, they are still the second-leading cause of death in children younger than 15 after accidents, according to a report authored by Dr. Paulo Pinheiro, assistant professor of epidemiology at UNLV’s School of Community Health Sciences.
The goal of the Long-Term Follow-Up clinic is to provide survivors with the follow-up care essential to stay as healthy as possible after their treatment has concluded. The program includes a comprehensive assessment, educational resources and a treatment summary specific to the individual survivor.
“A lot of times, the side effects don’t show up right away,” Walsh said. “They may show up in 10 to 20 years.”
Some of the side or late effects after treatment for childhood, adolescent or young adult cancer may include: slow or stunted growth; heart problems; fertility; thyroid issues; secondary cancers; and educational and emotional issues.
According to the limited data available, there are approximately 1,034 childhood cancer survivors in Nevada, with 10 developing a second independent cancer. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation grant will provide seed money to begin a registry at the clinic to expand the amount of information collected on childhood cancer patients in Nevada.
“I hope to add a research component,” Walsh said, adding that information about side or late effects specific to each patient based on the kind of cancer they had and the treatment they received “would be used to start a collaboration with other institutions.”
Walsh explained that survivors can come to the clinic two years after the completion of their treatment as long as they are in remission.
“We are here as a resource,” she said. “We are a nonprofit specialty center that takes anybody with or without insurance.”
Fitzgerald, now 14 and a freshman at Desert Oasis High School, 6600 W. Erie Ave., underwent cancer treatment for three years and three months. He lost his hair five times. His last chemotherapy treatment was in April 2011. He volunteers at the clinic and shares his experiences with other kids.
“Getting cancer was kind of good for me because it taught me a lot of things, and I met a lot of new people,” he said. “So, I say just embrace it — the best you make of it, the easier it’s going to be.”
For more information or to donate to Cure 4 The Kids Foundation, visit cure4thekids.org or call 702-732-0952.
For an appointment at the Long-Term Follow-Up Clinic, call 702-732-3330.
For more information about the Children’s Specialty Center of Nevada, call 702-732-1493.