Parents of Kids With Cancer Lash Out at Study

Comparison of obese children with those on chemotherapy draws outrage

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, April 18, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Sharon Wells couldn't believe what she was reading.

Researchers from Children's Hospital of San Diego had published a study earlier this month that said obese children were so unhealthy and unhappy that their quality of life was worse than that of children undergoing chemotherapy.

Wells was shocked. She thought back to the misery her son, Tony, endured when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

High fevers and nausea and such weakness that he couldn't stand on his own. Rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and steroids. Birthdays and holidays in the hospital. Loneliness as friends drifted away.

His suffering was almost more than Wells could bear.

So when she read the news report on the study's comparison of children with a weight problem to children with cancer, she was furious.

"Are they [obese children] so sick from radiation that they can't play or even talk, they can't get to the bathroom by themselves, they can't take a bath or shower by themselves?" says the 36-year-old Mesa, Ariz., woman. "There is no comparison between what my son went through and what an obese child goes through."

Wells is not alone in her outrage.

HealthDay received numerous e-mails from parents of children who had died from cancer. They expressed disbelief at the study's findings and outrage that such a comparison could even be made.

"Overweight children's parents aren't sat down in a conference room and told there are no known survivors of childhood obesity," wrote one woman who signed her name, "Jenny, Sarah's mom forever."

"Nothing can compare," wrote Laura Duty, whose son, Ben, died at age 17 from brain cancer. "The cancer kids wait and watch as their hair falls out from the chemo, the pain of blood draws for testing, the weight gain of steroids, sometimes (in my son's case) loss of the use of their limbs due to drugs that are supposed to save them."

But the researchers who authored the study say there's been a misunderstanding.

"Certainly, it was not our intent to offend anybody," says Dr. Jeffrey Schwimmer, an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Diego. "As a pediatrician, I am well aware of the tragedy of a child who loses their life to cancer."

In the study, published in the April 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Schwimmer and his colleagues surveyed 106 children, aged 5 to 18, who were treated at a hospital for obesity.

The questionnaire, designed to measure quality of life, included queries on such issues as physical functioning, emotional state and social relationships, Schwimmer says.

The children were asked if it was difficult for them to run, if they hurt or ached, if they felt angry, sad or fearful, or if they were ever subjected to teasing at school, among other things.

On a 100-point scale, the obese children rated their quality of life a 67, compared to 83 for healthy, non-obese children. Parents of obese children rated their child's quality of life a 63, compared to 88 for parents of non-obese kids.

Schwimmer says that same survey has been used before to assess a variety of health problems affecting children, including liver disease, congenital heart disease, Type 1 diabetes, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

For his research, Schwimmer compared his findings to a study published last year in the journal Cancer that found children undergoing chemotherapy rated their quality of life a 69, while their parents rated their children's quality of life a 69 --- slightly better than the obese children.

Schwimmer says neither study was an objective measure of cancer or obesity. Instead, his survey gets at the perceptions of obese children and their parents about their quality of life -- a subjective measure, he says.

"We are not trying to say that obesity is worse than cancer," Schwimmer says. "We made no conclusions nor made any comparison about which condition is better or worse than the other."

Wells says there is no comparison.

Her 18-year-old son's cancer spread to his lungs, liver and spleen. The last time he went into the hospital, he told her he didn't want to be resuscitated.

Before doctors sedated him, Wells held her son's hand and promised him she'd be there when he woke up. He never did.

It's been nine months since Tony died. That he's no longer in pain is of little solace. Wells has contemplated suicide.

"I have to hold on because I promised Tony," she says. "He held on for me, so now I have to hold on for him."

More information

For information and support for children who have cancer, visit the National Children's Cancer Society or the National Childhood Cancer Foundation.

SOURCES: Sharon Wells, mother, Mesa, Ariz.; Jeffrey B. Schwimmer, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, University of California, San Diego Children's Hospital and Health Center; April 9, 2003, Journal of the American Medical Association

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