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January 22 , 2008

The Little Knights


G. J. D'Angio
The journals of explorers like Scott of the Antarctic or Burton of Africa make very interesting reading. It is fascinating to follow the course of these determined, intrepid individuals as they traversed unknown terrain, making their way forward despite extraordinary difficulties.
This is such a book: a memoir and a set of reflections written by a pioneering explorer into the wilderness of childhood cancer. It is a very personal recounting of the professional life and times of Professor Berta Jereb of Slovenia. She was among the first to devote her career to pediatric oncology, particularly in the systematic use of combined chemo-radiotherapy in the battle against the malignant diseases of childhood. More than that, she tells the stories of the real heroes of that battle: the girls and boys who, when young adults, developed the sometimes overt and often hidden delayed complications of the rigorous treatments that were needed for cure.
More than once, Prof. Jereb says, "Cure alone is not enough" for these patients. The goal is to secure not only life, but limb as well - and normal heart and lung and liver and kidney and psyche, too.
She charts her course through the at-first dark forests of the unknown to the brighter landscapes of modern medicine. Prof. Jereb provides in clear, non-technical language the progress made over the span of her long career. She describes how the more aggressive treatments of the early years gave way to more calibrated measures that have left fewer physical and emotional scars.
Prof. Jereb does this through illuminating, poignant case histories of patients she has known, and who have inspired her to form "The Little Knights" Foundation. One of its major goals is to foster emotional and psychologic healing by bringing survivors together in group meetings. She describes vividly the feeling of release of many such young adults when they find themselves among "their kind", and no longer "other"; i.e., different from their age peers in the general population.
This small volume will provide information and inspiration to the many who scarcely know that cancer can afflict children as well as adults. It will acquaint them with the even broader ramifications of the disease, since it affects the entire family — especially the siblings — as much as the patient him/herself.
She mentions Dr. Sidney Farber, one of the great figures in the field, who taught his students, like this writer, an all-important lesson, "Provide 'Total Care' ". He meant by this that the entire family had to be considered and looked after, not only the affected child. The financial and emotional well-being of the parents and siblings needed to be kept constantly in mind and provided for. It will be obvious to those who read these pages that Professor Jereb is devoted to that concept, and has embodied its principles in her practice throughout her notable career.

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