NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 6 – The diagnosis of cancer in a child or teenager can be a devastating blow to parents and other family members. Cancer creates an instant crisis in the family.
From basic information about cancer and its causes to in-depth information on specific cancer types including risk factors, early detection, diagnosis, and treatment options being informed is crucial to be able to manage the attendant complications that come with cancer.
Childhood cancer is a term used to describe cancers that occur between birth and 18 years of age. Childhood cancer is quite rare and different from cancer in adults in the way it grows and spreads, how it is treated, and how it responds to treatment.
Dr Fatima Chakera of The Nairobi Hospital says the types of cancers that occur most often in children are different from those seen in adults.
“Common types of childhood cancer include leukemia (begins in blood-forming tissue such as bone marrow), lymphoma (begins in the cells of the immune system), neuroblastoma (begins in certain nerve cells), retinoblastoma (begins in the tissues of the retina), Wilms tumor (a type of kidney cancer), and cancers of the brain, bone, and soft tissue,” explained Dr Chakera.
Unlike cancer in adults, the vast majority of childhood cancers do not have a known cause. Many studies have sought to identify the causes of childhood cancer, but very few cancers in children are caused by environmental or lifestyle factors. Screening is generally not helpful for childhood cancers.
Dr Chakera says cancer prevention efforts in children should focus on behaviors that will prevent the child from developing preventable cancer as an adult.
“Childhood cancer often is difficult to detect in its early stages because the associated signs and symptoms are nonspecific, insidious in onset, and mimic more common disorders,” she said.
When identified early, cancer is more likely to respond to effective treatment and result in a greater probability of survival, less suffering, and often less expensive and less intensive treatment. Significant improvements can be made in the lives of children with cancer by detecting cancer early and avoiding delays in care.
Dr Chakera: “A correct diagnosis is essential to treat children with cancer because each cancer requires a specific treatment regimen that may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, and/or targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances that attack specific cancer cells with less harm to normal cells.”
Early diagnosis consists of 3 components: awareness by families and accessing care, clinical evaluation, diagnosis and staging i.e. determining the extent to which a cancer has spread and access to treatment.
Once treatment is finished, the health care team will set up a follow-up schedule. “For many years after treatment, it is very important that children have regular follow-up exams with the cancer care team,” said Dr. Chakera adding that, “As time goes by, the risk of the cancer coming back goes down. Doctor visits might be needed less often, but they are still important because some side effects of treatment might not show up until years later.”
Childhood cancer survivors are at risk, to some degree, for several possible late and long-term effects of their cancer treatment.
Oncologists at the Nairobi Hospital Cancer Centre say it’s important to discuss what these possible effects might be with your child’s medical team.
They says the risks for each child depend on a number of factors, such as the type of cancer, the specific cancer treatments used, the doses of cancer treatment, and the child’s age at the time of treatment. It’s very important to discuss possible late side effects with your child’s health care team, and to make sure there is a plan to watch for these problems and treat them, if needed
Palliative care relieves symptoms caused by cancer and improves the quality of life of patients and their families.
Not all children with cancer can be cured, but relief of suffering is possible for everyone.