Cancer is the second most common cause of death among U.S. children between the ages of 1 and 14, surpassed only by accidents. Childhood cancer deaths, however, are declining, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gunnison Riggins is one such child in Springdale. He is an 8-year-old second grader at Shiloh Elementary diagnosed with lymphoma two months ago, his mother, Kari Riggins, said last week.
Lymphoma is a cancer of a part of the immune system called the lymphatic system, according to Medline Plus.
Gunnison Riggins was diagnosed June 27 and is undergoing 18 months of chemotherapy, his mother said. The youngest of five children, Gunnison has had lots of support through the process.
For Gunnison, the worst part about spending so much time in the hospital has been “not getting to see my brothers and sisters much,” he said.
There are no formal policies set up to in public elementary schools to help teachers integrate students into class after they have been absent because of cancer. Because of federal medical privacy law, students are not allowed to know about one anothers’ medical conditions. This makes it hard to talk about cancer in the classroom, Jones Elementary Principal Melissa Fink said.
Gunnison is a second-grader at Shiloh Christian, where administrators say they are able to do things differently. The teachers are aware of Gunnison’s condition and have talked openly with students as he has progressed through chemotherapy, said Matt Slaughter, director of Admissions and Relations the school in Springdale.
“The kids in Gunnison’s class know what he’s going through and pray for him daily,” Slaughter said. “Ministering to the Riggins family is a big part of what we do.”
Kari Riggins has been overwhelmed with how the community has responded to Gunnison’s condition.
“We have been so blessed because so many people have been praying for him. Our church family has rallied around us and it’s been a blessing to see how many people love and care for us,” Kari Riggins said. “There are so many blessings in the midst of this storm.”
Cancer affects children worldwide. An estimated 160,000 childhood cancer cases are diagnosed each year; approximately 90,000 children a year throughout the world die from cancer, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization.
As research increases, the deaths of children with cancer have decreased. During the past 25 years, significant improvements have been made to cancer treatments, according to the CDC.
The five-year relative survival rate among children for all cancer types combined, improved from 58 percent for patients diagnosed in 1975-1977 to 80 percent for those diagnosed in 1996-2004, according to the CDC.
“When a patient first learns they have cancer, the natural reaction is fear,” said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D, Cancer Research Institute executive director. “Many times, their mind turns off when they hear the word cancer. It sounds like a death sentence.”
That was not the case for 8-year-old Springdale child Kaylee Palmer who was diagnosed as having kidney cancer last year. She underwent surgery to remove the tumor and completed six months of outpatient chemotherapy in December, Kaylee’s mother, Kim Palmer said.
However, the cancerous tumor reappeared in her lung in June and she has since started treatment again, Kim Palmer said.
“Last year I got diagnosed and it reappeared in my lungs,” Kaylee Palmer said. “The worst part is getting the shots and having to be hooked up to the IV poles.”