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HCI researchers work to improve childhood cancer treatments

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Lilli Hartvigsen remembers the moment her three-year-old son Ethan was diagnosed with cancer.

“On November 7th, three weeks after he had an MRI, they told us it was lymphoma,” she says.

It began as a limp and quickly became a parent’s worst nightmare. “They actually did a bone scan, and it was all over his bones,” Lilli explains, “Stage 4 cancer. It was terrible.”

Treatment began right away, and what followed was three years of chemotherapy. It was a long battle, but Ethan beat the cancer. He is now a happy and healthy seven-year-old.

Lilli says doctors explained there is a chance the cancer can return, but they didn’t want the family to live in fear of that possibility. “They said, ‘go and live your life. Don’t worry about it.’”

The possibility of the cancer returning is a sobering thought. About 90% of children diagnosed with leukemia are cured, but if the cancer returns, which is called recurring, it’s much harder to treat.

Elizabeth Raetz, MD, is a pediatric oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). Her research focuses on creating better treatments for children with cancer. She explains why recurring cancer is difficult to cure. “It’s almost developed a resistance to the original therapy,” she says. “That means you have to treat it in a different way or with stronger medicines. It’s much more intensive than when they were first diagnosed.”

Dr. Raetz says her dream is to minimize the toxicity of chemotherapy. Then “children won’t have to experience all the side effects that they have with conventional treatments,” she says.

Childhood leukemia is the most common cancer among children, with close to 3,000 kids diagnosed each year in the United States, according to Dr. Raetz. Statistics from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society show that lymphomas are the third most common childhood cancers, and more than 800 children will be diagnosed in 2016. The treatments for the two types of cancers are similar.

Dr. Raetz hopes her research at HCI will cut the length of treatment. “When you look at the 90% cure rates, it’s not without cost,” she says. “The average length of treatment is a little over three years for boys and a little over two years for girls.”

She says a lot of work still needs to be done, and Lilli agrees. “I think this research is going to be amazing, and it's going to help lots of families who are in need,” Lilli says.

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit