Having cancer at any age is a shock, but it is never worse than when found in a child. Among Japan’s roughly 20m kids under the age of 15, about 1,600 of them have the most common form of cancer in children — Leukemia. Of the various types of this blood disease, approximately 80% have Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) and 20% Acute Myelocytic Leukemia (AML).

Leukemia is named after white blood cells (WBCs), also called Leukocytes, which under normal circumstances are supposed to fight infection in the body, but under certain circumstances can mutate and becoming cancerous. When this happens, the disease slows down the production of red blood cells (RBCs) that carry oxygen around the body and remove carbon dioxide, and platelets, which cause blood clotting and control bleeding. Thus Leukemia symptoms can include chronic fatigue, abnormal bruising, and excessive bleeding.
Leukemia can also quickly spread to other organs, causing cancers at each site.

No one really knows what causes Leukemia, but among the causes suspected over the last 10 years of research are the items in the following list. It’s interesting to note that several of these suspected causes, and in particular the exposure to low-frequency electro-magnetic fields, have been the subject of major studies here in Japan.

Possible causes of Leukemia:

  1. Population mixing — being the influx of possibly infected migrant populations into more sparsely populated groups and thus stressing the immune systems of the existing inhabitants
  2.  Fetus-related blood defects (defects that manifest themselves after conception but before birth)
  3. Environmental radiation
  4. Viruses (one rare form of adult leukemia found in Japan is supposed to derive from HIV)
  5. Low frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs), such as power pylons. (A major Japanese study found a possible correlation between low-frequency EMF and ALL Leukemia
  6. Toxic agricultural chemicals discharged into the air 7. Genetically caused chromosonal abnormalities 8. Environmental factors such as smoking, chemicals in the work place, etc.

Worldwide, Leukemia newly affects about 2,500 children. It is the leading cause of cancer among children and accounts for about 1/3 of all childhood cancers. The study and treatment of leukemia is intensive in Japan, and as a result, the number of children whose cancer successfully goes into remission after treatment is quite high, being around 80% or better.

But one child who didn’t make it was 2-year old Tyler Ferris, who was the loved son of Mark and Kim Ferris. Many of you may know Mark for his work at the American Chamber of Commerce or in his capacity as a founding director of
Building2 KK. Sadly, Tyler was diagnosed with infant ALL when he was less than one month old. His prognosis was very poor from the outset, and yet he managed to live a full and joyful life for 23 months before he finally succumbed to a fungal infection that spread from his lungs to his brain.

Clearly the loss of one’s child is very painful, and most people grieve then try to forget. Kim and Mark on the other hand are products of their own lifestyles (living in a foreign country, Mark running his own business) and could well be classed as “fighters”. As a result, they have decided to turn their loss into a living memorial for their child and have set up what is probably Japan’s first ever non-religious NPO registered by non-Japanese.

Tyler’s site is at www.tylershineon.org. It is very touching and worth visiting. It is also the focus for an intensive effort by the Ferris family to raise the awareness of child Leukemia and to raise money for Tyler’s hospital, the National Center for Child Health and Development in Setagaya. The story of Tyler has touched many people and in particular a number of celebrity sportspeople that Kim and Mark have been able to coopt to appear for the Foundation’s first major event — the “Sports Extravaganza” scheduled this week at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Roppongi.