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Childhood Cancer Care: A Language of Love at Golisano

Children's Health
Author name: Lee Health

Childhood Cancer Graphic

At Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, the message our providers deliver is simple for children and families facing a cancer diagnosis. "You’re in the right place. I'm here for you. We’re in this together.”

Indeed, any child who needs specialized services here gets it, regardless of the family's ability to pay.

“More than half of the children treated for cancer at Golisano Children’s Hospital are uninsured, on Medicaid, or lack financial resources to pay for services,” explains pediatric hematologist/oncologist Craig MacArthur, M.D. “These young patients and families face many challenges physically, emotionally, and financially.

"In addition to many financial hardships, the medical diagnosis adds a burden. We help families focus on getting the life-saving treatment their kids need.”

Dr. MacArthur Photo
Dr. Craig MacArthur with a young patient. 

Providing life-saving care where we live

There was a time when the nearest treatment center for children with cancer in Southwest Florida was in Tampa or Miami. But Barbara's Friends changed that. Established 26 years ago as the pediatric cancer fund at Golisano Children’s Hospital, Barbara’s Friends has since raised more than $20 million to help children with cancer and life-threatening blood disorders.

Funded through donations and community support, the program has brought specialized care home for more than 10,000 local families facing blood disorders and pediatric cancer.

“When Golisano Children’s Hospital was built, we made a commitment to offer the best care close to home,” says pediatric hematologist/oncologist Emad Salman, M.D., who’s also regional medical officer for Golisano Children’s Services. “If a child needs radiation therapy, that may mean daily visits 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.”

The children’s hospital’s hematology/oncology program is one of only nine centers in the state for infants and children diagnosed with cancer and blood disorders. And it’s right here, in Southwest Florida’s backyard.

Barbara’s Friends Pediatric Cancer Fund in action

In 2020, 70 young patients at Golisano Children’s Hospital were diagnosed with cancer.

“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,” says Amy Frith, Senior Director, Barbara’s Friends - Children’s Cancer Fund & Children’s Miracle Network for Golisano Children’s Hospital of SWFL. “All made possible by generous donations.”

Thanks to Barbara’s Friends and the support of community donors, the pediatric and oncology center is home to world-class medical professionals, cutting-edge technologies and life-changing care.

Its expert staff of advanced, multi-disciplinary team, led by Dr. MacArthur, provides care from every angle, including a psychologist, family educator, child life specialist, music therapist and full-time teacher at the hospital, as well as five oncologists and a team of specially trained nurses.

“Our approach here helps not only the child but also the entire family in the fight against cancer,” Dr. MacArthur says.

Advancing pediatric cancer care treatment

When asked what his title is, Dr. MacArthur pauses as if he has to think about it: “I guess I'm medical director of pediatric hematology/oncology.”

He is, indeed. Dr. MacArthur holds board certifications in hospice and palliative medicine and in pediatric hematology/oncology.

Apparently, Dr. MacArthur’s not attached to titles. It’s a humility borne of a single-minded focus to continually march forward the unit’s goal toward finding more cures, better cures, and providing its patients with a higher quality of life, both while in treatment, after treatment, and beyond during their journeys.

The hospital owns an 84 percent survival rate for pediatric cancer – that’s higher than the national average. But there’s more that can be done, which is why the pediatric hematology/oncology team is excited about the short-term future, which includes launching a neurosurgery specialty for treatment of brain cancers.

Pediatric neurosurgery: A close reality

Every year more than 400 SWFL children seek outpatient treatment beyond our area for neurosurgical services, according to Dr. MacArthur. On average, 40 children are transferred out of the emergency department for specialize care that, at the moment, the hospital is unable to provide.

“There’s an immediate need for pediatric neurosurgery at Golisano,” Dr. MacArthur says. “Pediatric neurosurgery will help our children in Southwest Florida who experience a brain injury from an auto, boat, sport accident or childhood fall.”

This year, about 163 neurosurgeries will be performed to treat hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) and perform craniotomies (for swelling on the brain) for babies, adolescents and teens, according to Dr. MacArthur.

Of course, there are also the children diagnosed with brain cancer. On average, about 15 cancerous brain tumors are diagnosed at Golisano each year.

“As our population continues to grow, so has the need for pediatric neurosurgery,” Dr. MacArthur says. “To bring pediatric neurosurgery to our hospital requires a state-of-the-art operating suite with advanced robotic neuro-navigation systems and a team of expert pediatric neurosurgery team to operate it.

“We’re ramping up our pediatric neurosurgery specialty now,” he says. “We’re looking forward to having a neurosurgeon soon, which is going to translate into children with brain tumors being able to stay in Lee County and be treated.”

Unparalleled access to pediatric cancer research

The hematology/oncology program at Golisano Children’s Hospital is a member of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research.

“The hospital’s relationship with COG’s unparalleled collaborative efforts provide us the information and support needed to answer important clinical questions in the fight against cancer,” Dr. MacArthur explains. “For example, we’re excited about the emergence of targeted cancer therapies, which are the focus of much anticancer drug development. Unlike with traditional chemotherapy, which is harmful to healthy cells in addition to cancer cells, targeted therapies only affect cancer cells, leaving normal, healthy cells less affected.”

Targeted therapies, Dr. MacArthur notes, are less toxic and in many patients and lead to far less side effects than chemotherapy.

Vision for the future

The hematology/oncology program sees an average of 400 outpatient visits a month.

“Our goal is to continue to assist children and their families on their cancer journeys, both in and out of the hospital,” Dr. MacArthur says.

The initiatives funded by Barbara’s Friends include the following:

  • Expanding the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) program to offer more services needed to provide holistic treatment to this demographic
  • Building the Infusion Clinic at the Golisano Children’s Healthcare Center of Naples for treatment of pediatric cancer patients in the Collier County community
  • Growing the Barbara’s Friends scholarship fund to ensure that children fighting pediatric cancer have an opportunity to become the heroes of tomorrow.

For more information on these programs, contact Amy Frith at Amy.Frith@LeeHealth.org or 239-343-6106.

More than 90 children are on active treatment for cancer at Golisano. To help honor them and celebrate our childhood cancer survivors, join us live every 8 a.m. Friday on the Golisano Facebook page for Clips for Cancer. This annual event that allows our cancer survivors to turn the tables on adult community leaders who volunteer to “put a price” on their heads to raise funds and awareness all while empowering these survivors by letting them shave their heads. To see who’s shaving and participate in this virtual event click Clips for Cancer.