A ground-breaking program based on healthy eating for families is improving long-term wellbeing for kids who’ve been through cancer treatment.
Once her five-year-old son Flynn came out of two years of chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, Sydney mum Kalita was simply grateful she’d got her boy back alive.
Flynn had been given “all sorts of drugs that had affected him in every way you can imagine,” Kalita says.
So the end of treatment was a celebration. Then the hard work began.
Meal time was increasingly a struggle. Dinner for the family, including Flynn’s two siblings, had always been a special occasion to spend time together - to relax, to chat about their day, to disconnect from the world and enjoy each other’s company.
Then came the cancer treatment, and at its end Flynn could no longer stomach the idea of many types of food.
“It got to the point where we couldn’t have dinner together any more,” Kalita says. “It was such an important part of the fabric of our family, so that upset me a lot.”
Flynn (centre) in the Emergency Ward surrouned by his family Gulliver (left), Kalita and Hector (right).
The therapy had changed Flynn’s tastes, meaning he reacted badly to certain foods. Kalita had never allowed him to move on to junk foods or fast food while he was in hospital, but now he was home, his taste range had narrowed dramatically. He was palpably fearful of certain foods.
“Eventually it got to the point where I had become anxious about serving family meals,” Kalita says. “A much cherished, intimate family pastime had become fraught and stressful for all five of us. I honestly felt quite hopeless.”
Then, Kalita had what she calls her “fairy godmother moment”. She heard about a new program called Reboot Kids, developed by psychologists and dietitians and funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project. Suddenly she felt hope for her son’s future health and for her family’s favourite time of day.
Reboot Kids for future health
What is Reboot Kids? Put simply, it’s a program that teaches parents specific strategies to promote healthy eating habits.
Read more: Reboot-Kids | Helping survivors thrive
The program, originally developed for children not previously treated for cancer, was modified by a team of oncologists, psychologists and dietitians at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, to help support parents and young children who had finished cancer treatment. Reboot Kids has been through a pilot program that boasted great success.
It’s now heading into a randomised control trial, which measures success by comparing a group of families in the trial to a group of families who have not taken part.
“It’s important to realise we’re not denying anybody a place,” says Dr Lauren Winkler, the study coordinator. “Everybody who wants to take part will be able to. We’ll just delay one group, because in science the best way to look at whether something is working is to measure the success of families who got the intervention compared to those who did not. We need to be sure they have better dietary outcomes.”
Why is diet important when a child comes out of cancer treatment?
“The long-term effects of cancer treatments mean children who have undergone cancer treatment have a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those who haven’t had cancer treatment,” Lauren explains.
“The treatments these children receive are highly toxic, which means they have an impact on their whole cardiovascular system. We know that adopting a healthy lifestyle, in particular, eating a healthy diet, is one of the easiest and most effective strategies for reducing cardiovascular disease.”
Flynn celebrated his fifth birthday in a hospital isolation suite .
The effects of chemotherapy, the nausea and vomiting and the changes in taste, often mean children can only keep a certain type of food down during treatment. Often, these are simple carbohydrates found in processed and refined foods such as sugar, pasta, crackers, white bread and various types of junk food, Lauren says.
During treatment the main focus is on ensuring the child remains at a healthy weight; it is about survival, so any food is good food. But once treatment has ended, it can be difficult to break that habit.
The pilot version of the program was one-on-one, mostly on the telephone and mostly involving a parent speaking with Lauren. The new program funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project, still involves the one-on-one aspect, but also introduces an online element.
“We’re looking to reduce the delivery costs so that we can roll this out to as many parents as possible,” Lauren says.
If the success of the program on Kalita, Flynn and the rest of their family is anything to go by, Reboot Kids has a big future.
Happy days at the beach. L-R Gulliver, Flynn (in remission) and Hector.
When Kalita first entered the program, she was asked to write down her dream outcome. Although she knew that it could never happen, she shot for the stars and said her dream was to be able to serve her family a quinoa salad, with vegetables, and have everybody at the table happily eat it.
She was taken through a four-week program that involved behavioural advice, parental influence information, simple tips such as when to put vegetables in front of Flynn (chopped carrots and celery in the school lunch box, instead of at home, eventually caught on as Flynn was in a different environment, hungry and distracted) and much more.
“When I wrote down the dream of quinoa salad, I told the team at Reboot Kids there was not a chance of this happening. Not a single chance,” Kalita says. “Then, guess what? By the end of the program, it happened! It’s one little thing that means a lot, and it helps reduce my concerns about his future health.”